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MMFF Movie Review

Sunod

Written and directed by Carlo Ledesma; co-writer Anton Santa Maria

Sunod is unusually sophisticated for the Filipino horror genre. Its terrors subtly operate along several levels. There is the stock opening nightmare scene in the graveyard, replete with howling winds, swirling black veils, and snakelike tree roots. It’s not real, but what follows is still hair-raising — not your grandmother’s Shake, Rattle En Roll. Cineastes agree that it was downhill there, after the very first in the series, or post-1984.

Olivia Sason, a.k.a. Liv’s (a coolly restrained Carmina Villaruel) very existence is already a horror story: she is an unemployed single mother with a seriously ill 12-year-old daughter, facing mounting hospital bills all alone. No one, not her daughter’s father, nor her own family or any friends are around to help her. Her desperation is palpable as she applies to work at a call center known as LGO (Liboro Global Outsourcing) at a job recruitment fair in a downtown university. She is accepted solely on her spoken English skills. She swallows the humiliation of being at least 20 years older than most of her fellow agents in training, and not as tech savvy as them. Her maturity serves her in good stead, however, when she successfully projects the authority of a supervisor (which she is not), thus retaining a valuable client. The fire-breathing, dragon lady CEO, Karen Liboro (Mylene Dizon) even fast tracks her regularization. Being a casual or endo contractual is a living nightmare for most of our work force.

Sunod was touted as the only horror film entry for the 2019 Metro Manila Film Fest (MMFF). However, each of the short student-made films which opened every main features, did have a horror theme derived from our traditional lower mythology — aswang, manananggal, multo, etc.  This film’s production polish has much to teach our student filmmakers. There are ever so subtle shifts in the lighting with each scene change: from the lighter blues and greys of the hospital, which segue into the darker steely shades of the call center, where one never knows whether it is night or day, and everything is mechanically scripted and constrained. There is an ambience of death and decay in the moldering yellows and mysterious shadows of the Liboro Building, where LGO occupies the top floor, and a washed out, shabby weariness to the small home with its worn furnishings, which Liv and her young daughter Anelle (Krystal Brimner who like her character, is also 12 years old ) share. The tall Gothic statues of dramatically backlit dark angels in the foyer of the Liboro Building, on whose top floor the call center holds office, are pure camp. They could be props from Hammer Studios. The music is brazenly manipulative, too obviously prompting us to cringe, and triggering the racing of our pulse rates, but this is a minor annoyance given the film’s otherwise outstanding production values.

This tale of possession is reminiscent of the classic The Exorcist (1973, by William Friedkin). The girls in both films are around the same age, and are both being raised by single mothers. In The Exorcist, it is a supernatural demon who takes over Regan (Linda Blair). In Sunod, another child, Nerissa (13-year-old Rhed Bustamante, looking like she belongs in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children), who happens to be the resident ghost of the Liboro Building, enters Anelle. The dramatically negative personality changes which may come with adolescence make child-raising a real-life, terrifying experience for many parents, and doubly so for a single parent going it alone.

But it is not just Anelle and Nerissa who are not whom they appear to be. Even Liv’s supervisor Lance (J.C. Santos) whom she initially took to be her knight in shining armor as his full name Lancelot implies, turns out to be just another prick. From his perspective, one might call it a fair quid pro quo, since he does ante up for Liv’s enormous debts. After kneeing him in the groin, she still deposits his check.

Liv’s barely concealed indignation when the LGO call center human resources department refuses her request for a huge advance on her salary, as well as her earlier flash of temper when the job recruiter was about to turn her away, hint at why she might be all alone in facing her problems. It seems she has used up whatever good will she might have had with her child’s father, her family or other friends.

There is only Liv’s officemate and new-found confidant Mimi (Kate Alejandrino) for now (no spoilers about what happens to Lance), who’s available to drive her and Nerissa/Anelle, so that Nerissa can find her long-lost mother Perla (Susan Africa making crazy eyes), and finally be at peace, then leave Anelle’s body for good. The delightful Ms. Alejandrino as Mimi, ably serves up the film’s few moments of levity. She frankly admits to being a professional call center trainee, simply so she can collect the training allowance, without the accountability, stress, and aggravation of actual BPO employment. Nerissa/Anelle transforms into a human Waze as she directs Mimi through the winding slum alleys. Mimi glances in her rearview mirror at the literal whites of the possessed Anelle’s eyes, and deadpans, “No, she’s not scary, but this is so-o-o crazy.”

At least in Sunod, the laughs are intended, unlike in such ineptly made horror films, particularly of the slasher sort. Think of Topel Lee’s Bloody Crayons, (2017, based on the Wattpad novel by Josh Argonza) where the audience is ROFL (rolling on the floor laughing) each time there’s a victim. The horror of Sunod unexpectedly grows on one with the appearance of the red ball of thread. In the film’s first part, Liv threads beads into necklaces and bracelets with innocuous clear nylon, as she keeps vigil by Anelle’s hospital bed. Here, the red thread ominously recalls the tik-tik’s tongue, which slithers through gaps in poor peasants’ pawid (nipa thatch) roofs, to vacuum up embryos in uteri, through the pregnant woman’s navel. Lonely Liv’s greatest fear is her daughter’s dying, but there’s more than one way to lose a child.

The color red and the idea of tethering might be an homage to Jordan Peele’s Us (2019). In astral travel, there is said to be a silver thread which tethers or connects one’s etheric or astral body to the physical body on this earthly plane. This ensures that one does not remain in whatever worlds one might encounter elsewhere, but be able to return to this planet. However hellish life here might be, the astral plane may not be all that great, as this film shows. In fairness, the world in which Liv temporarily finds herself in does resemble an art gallery installation.

The red thread also brings to mind the Fates in Greek Myth: Clotho who spins it, Lachesis who decides upon the length each living being might have, and Atropos who with finality, cuts the thread. In the end, Liv is doomed, though exactly how her end might come about, and whether she will take her beloved only daughter with her, we may never know. Now for her at least, that is scary.

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