Desperation in Manila

graceland-reyes-landfill-fullIt has been a while since I saw something on screen and said out loud, “Oh, my God.” But I did that while I watched Graceland, Ron Morales’s taut indie thriller about kidnapping, child prostitution, and poverty in Manila. Early in the film, Marlon (Arnold Reyes), the driver for the rich and sleazy Congressman Manuel Changho (Menggie Cobarrubias), is driving his and his boss’s teen-aged daughters home when they are hijacked by a kidnapper dressed as a policeman. They drive to a deserted area of a massive dump; the girls are whimpering, Marlon is tearfully protesting, and suddenly the kidnapper shoots Changho’s daughter in the chest before absconding with Marlon’s. It is a quick shot, with only a split second of blood splatter, but that brief moment as young, recently chipper, now terrified Sophia shutters and dies made me exclaim out loud.

There are several moments in Graceland that are shocking or discomfiting, but none of them – including murders, several plot twists, and the nudity of the very young prostitutes Changho likes – felt exploitative. This is a contrast to how similar plot points have been handled in, say, Law & Order: SVU or Taken, in which sex and violence are gratuitous demands of genre. While Graceland is suspenseful and paced in order to raise your heart rate, Morales seems less interested in titillation than in the moral dilemmas created by poverty and desperation: In order to get his daughter back, he needs to convince Changho that his own daughter is still alive. And he also needs to convince his hospitalized wife, who is in need of an organ transplant they cannot afford, that their daughter is safe. Lies compound each other, and the detective on Changho’s payroll (a terribly hammy Dido de la Paz) is very suspicious.

Shot on location in the grimy slums of Manila on a shoe string budget, Graceland features cast of well-known Filipino. American audiences expecting a certain kind of naturalistic acting from their indie films will appreciate Reyes desperate performance, but de la Paz, Cobarrubias, Marife Necesito (who plays Changho’s wife), and Leon Miguel (who is the main kidnapper Visel) vacillate between wooden and melodramatic. Morales, whose story structure, visual direction, and editing show him to be a great talent, does not have equal skill when it comes to working with actors, some of which is because his dialogue – at least as translated from Tagalog to English for the subtitles – is a bit clichéd.

The ending of the film, which I will not spoil, is assuredly not clichéd, howevLoer. Instead of going the route of most Hollywood thrillers, Morales refuses the easy moral certitude that comfort the comfortably middle class American audiences. Marlon’s life and the life of his wife are both too precarious for that sort of luxury, and Morales communicates that unease expertly in the final short of Reyes’s wide-eyes and nervous hope.

Written and Directed by Ron Morales
Starring Arnold Reyes, Menggie Cobarrubias, and Dido de la Paz
Rated R
In Tagalog with subtitles
At Reading Gaslamp, and online at Amazon and iTunes

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