Directed by Sherad Anthony Sanchez

By Noel Vera

Sherad Anthony Sanchez’s Salvage (2015) takes its title from the common Filipino slang word for summary execution, which Pete Lacaba in his Manila Times column Carabeef Lengua explains: “It was during martial rule that salvaging came to acquire its present Filipino meaning. To salvage is to save things from a wreckage, but the visual similarity of the word to the Tagalog salbahe (naughty, abusive), which is itself derived from the Spanish salvaje (savage), inevitably led to the present denotation of salvaging as extrajudicial or summary execution of both criminal and subversive elements.”

I remember a simpler explanation, though I can’t remember where I got it nor find any documentary basis online: that the military is “saving” or “salvaging” the victim’s soul from the evils of communism.

You can’t say the military doesn’t have its own perverse, not to mention blasphemous, sense of humor. Nowadays the shadowy folk that ride on motorbikes and do Duterte’s will by shooting people almost at random in the streets of Manila wrap their victims in duct tape, pin comments to the corpses: “Pusher huwag tularan!” ([Drug] pusher don’t imitate!), or draw the Batman insignia on their cardboard squares. The sophomoric comedy continues unabated.

Sanchez’s conceit takes its cue from Mario O’Hara’s great Pangarap ng Puso (Demons, 2000) in conflating the threat of military execution with the threat of a mythical creature in this case the aswang (ghoul or vampire), the difference being this is told through the lens of a handheld video camera, found-footage style.

A difficult genre to get right and Sanchez doesn’t, not completely: the newsmen still look silly running desperately with camcorder on one shoulder, even sillier when one member of the crew passes the camera to another — “You’re running for your life for f***’s sake!” you want to yell at them; “Drop the f***ing camera!”

At the same time you can’t completely dismiss the film for its flaws. Sanchez takes his cue from another not-quite-as-good horror movie, Leo Gabriadze’s Unfriended to use pixilation or distortion (as if from a damaged hard drive or faulty streaming service) in place of special effects — use the errors generated by the media itself as a means of generating disturbing imagery.

Sanchez goes much further than Gabriadze: sometimes the pixilation covers a man’s back like alligator scales, beautiful and fiendishly itch-inducing (you think of the monstrously scaled men in J.G. Ballard’s The Crystal World crawling to shore like primeval amphibians). At one point we have a man and woman being tormented in the middle of a small arena, women and children standing around watching in their finest town fiesta costumes (bright shiny pink and blue dresses). At one point the camera watches an anaconda wrap itself around a woman, the woman screaming in ecstasy as the film strays into Ken Russell territory (Altered States or The Devils anyone?) — by now handheld camera and nightmare have fused into one and you forget the conventions of the whole silly genre as it is being memorably, horrifically, transcended.

Not sure if Sanchez supports the mayor-turned-president of Davao — a significant portion of the Filipino filmmaking industry does and one fears the worst. But intended or not (this was made back in 2015 after all) he’s produced a powerful metaphor for the insidious nature of fanatical evil, the way it turns truth — reality itself — around, manipulates pixels and sound bytes till they mean the opposite of what they are. We are suitably freaked out.

MTRCB Rating: R-16