Critic After Dark

Directed by Mikhail Red
Available for free on YouTube

Mikhail Red continues his oddward journey with Neomanila, his third feature, set in Metro Manila’s mean streets — to be more precise, in the city of Pasig, one of the more eccentric corners of the National Capital Region.

Pasig looks new, feels new, the colonial Spanish architecture you see in the rest of the metropolis largely absent; Pasig in my childhood was cogon fields and farmlands till they sprouted neighborhoods, then factories, then (in the 1990s) commercial hubs. Once started the growth barely paused; have not visited in 17 years but the urban setting of Red’s film recalls an alarming combination of Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell, with an updated iteration of Maynila Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag swirled into the mix. I mean — even the slums look new, the grime recently applied, the garbage freshly strewn.

Father and veteran indie filmmaker Raymond Red is a self-professed fan of Ridley Scott’s science fiction epic, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he was also a fan or has at least seen Mamoru Oshii’s equally influential anime feature; safe bet that Mikhail has inherited that enthusiasm, and pours it into this production. The script (by Mikhail, cousin Rae Red, and Zig Dulay) is not so much a vigilante-killers film as it is a stray-child story, focusing on the nascent relationship forming between gang courier Toto (Timothy Castillo) and self-appointed guardian and mother figure Irma (Eula Valdez). Toto needs money; his brother is in jail, not necessarily because he committed a crime but because he’s connected to a crime figure they seek, and the cops demand either the aforementioned figure or an unaffordably large sum of money (the practice is called “palit-ulo” or literally “swap-heads”; not a legal practice but a reportedly common one). Toto approaches Irma for a job, Irma (a friend of his late mother, she claims) gives him one, the film goes from there.

In the background we have Irma’s job, as a vigilante killer hired and directed by the police. Duterte’s drug-war EJKs (extra judicial killings) and the practice of palit-ulo are used as armatures in the plot; the latter is the motor that drives Toto and the former is the profession that draws them closer to each other. The details are fairly persuasive: the pose and presentation of corpses — bound by duct tape, sporting cardboard signs that read “I AM A PUSHER; DO NOT IMITATE” — seem inspired by the series of harrowing photographs taken at the actual murder sites. Red doesn’t play coy with the police — the “boss” Irma works for is clearly a high-placed officer, and many of the victims are either low-level drug dealers few will miss or (in a specific case) an “asset” (informer) the police want silenced.

As Toto, Timothy Castillo represents our point of view and does so with unfussy directness. He doesn’t have a pretty-boy face and thank goodness for that; his is a face of the streets, tough-looking with a hint of vulnerable youth, a face you feel will express what’s inside — no technique, no filter, no prevarication. That said, the performance is miles away from the wide-grinning unsettlingly nonhuman Nathan Winston Payumo he played in Eduardo Dayao’s Violator — you can’t help being impressed by the acting range, or at least the eclectic choice of roles.

As Irma, Eula Valdez owns the film. I remember her being a striking beauty; I don’t remember her as any kind of drama heavyweight (to be fair I wasn’t looking). Her Irma has the hardened look of a veteran professional, used to taking a life in the course of a day’s work, her strongest emotional register being cynical amusement at matters grotesque or ironic. When the strain of the job gets to her, when she, despite herself, betrays glimmerings of a hidden humanity — the searching look she gives Toto, or the tenderness with which she leaves a baby along the aisle of a 24-hour convenience store — the effect on us is quiet surprise.

I mentioned Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell as probable visual influences, and one may question if this kind of story — standard-issue assassin-for-hire and her boy assistant — justifies the elaborate extravagant backdrop. I think so: Red (I submit) presents a futuristic landscape not primarily in the spirit of Scott or Oshii (though they contribute significantly) but in the spirit of Jean-Luc Godard, who can gaze at the Paris of the 1960s and in Alphaville envision the far future without using a single made-up set or prop. The lighting and structures are all the city of Pasig’s; the framing and sensibility is all Red. And at the foot of these neon lit buildings, along streets brightened by the glow of sodium lamps, these little creatures — human cockroaches if you will — scamper and struggle and do their best to survive. Not a bad contribution to the genre of neo-noir and (in my book) Red’s best to date.

The film is available for free on YouTube: