Midnight in a Perfect World
Directed by Dodo Dayao
I THOUGHT Violator — Dodo Dayao’s debut feature — one of the most intriguing of recent horrors, Kurosawa Kiyoshi’s punk bastard remake of Rio Bravo with elements of the apocalypse substituting for Hawks’ handy sticks of dynamite. With Midnight in a Perfect World he steps up his game: this time he’s proposing an entire utopian society Aldous Huxley style, with a trace of fascism at the edges of this seductive demented vision.
It’s the Philippines in some undisclosed future and, as one of the lead characters puts it,, “everything works.” Trains run on time, floods are a thing of the past, pollution in the Pasig River has been cleaned up; only people in this much improved New Society don’t seem that much happier, suggesting Dayao subscribes to the belief that if humans could remove every source of dissatisfaction in their lives they’d be forced to invent something new to complain about.
In this case folks do: localized power failures occur throughout the city and people disappear in the recurring darkness — unsure how or why, but they’re never seen again. We see the aftermath of one such “blackout” — Tonichi (Dino Pastrano) wakes up bloodied in the middle of the road, staggers to his girlfriend Deana’s apartment, pounds on the door. No answer. She’s joined the ranks of the desaparecidos, the Argentinian term for the 30,000 kidnapped and killed sometimes vanished without a trace between 1973 and 1990, an echo of and deliberate allusion to present president Rodrigo Duterte’s murderous drug war (27,000 and counting). There are differences of course: the drug war’s minions leave bodies with crude signs displaying crudely written warnings (“I AM A DRUG PUSHER DON’T IMITATE”) or a Batman logo; these disappeared don’t even leave a presence on social media, their existence lingering only in the memories of those who cared. This is the future, where deletions are done cleanly, digitally.
You wonder: why a utopia as opposed to a dystopia — was it Dayao’s figleaf attempt to conform to the DJ Shadow song whose title he’s adopted? I’ve had that question asked of Philip K. Dick’s alternate-history classic The Man in the High Castle, where the Axis Powers win World War II (why set the story in the relatively enlightened Japanese-run West Coast instead of the Nazi-dominated East Coast?) and this was my belated long considered reply: Dick then (and Dayao now) wasn’t going for the easy drama; he wanted a dystopia that wasn’t completely bleak, that works relatively well but with subtle deeply ingrained flaws — a dysfunctional utopia if you like, a society with genuine appeal that after all is said and done is still basically wrong. Pure speculation on my part, but the fact that Dick is mentioned early in the film leads me to suspect I’m on the right track.
Dick isn’t the only influence — there’s David Lynch, whose Red Room is the likely inspiration for Dayao’s safehouse with its nightmare wallpaper and no-exit ambiance; there’s Kurosawa Kiyoshi’s Pulse which suggests loneliness is a worse fate than death; there’s Shane Carruth’s dense looping narratives (and before that Chris Marker’s La Jetee); and there’s Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin which I’m not a big fan of but does have a suitably eerie look and feel. Dayao wears his influences lightly however, and tosses in a distinctly Filipino streetwise punk sensibility; you can recognize much of where he’s coming from (but not all), and where he’s going is anyone’s guess.
The film is a difficult watch, to be candid. Horror is an essentially conservative genre with ruthless demands: you must have a simple setup, you must make clear where the danger is coming from and how (“why” is optional, an answer more often given than denied), you must ratchet up the tension in clearly defined often predictable incremental doses. Dayao proceeds to break these rules as often as he can, as thoroughly as he can: the threat is vague — mainly learned in second hand snatches, through hearsay — the tension often forsaken for a pervasive sense of dread, the horror more glimpsed than clearly seen.
Helps to have good people collaborating: shadowy camerawork by Albert Banzon (Fuccbois, Balangiga, Ordinary People, Violator, Todo Todo Teros, basically more great Filipino independent productions than I can track) and the relatively newer Gym Lumbera (Violator); deep dank colors by Biba Abiera (Apocalypse Child), eccentric editing by Lawrence S. Ang (Respeto, Salvage); eclectic score by Erwin Romulo, Malek Lopez, Juan Miguel Sobrepena, peculiarly subterranean sound design by Corinne De San Jose (Season of the Devil), claustrophobic production design by Benjamin Padero and Carlo Tabije — Dayao has you strapped to a motorized chair programmed to head for unknown locations but at least the chair is superbly fashioned and upholstered, with badass colors.
Helps that Dayao devotes the first half of the film to sketching a quartet of vivid characters: the aforementioned Tonichi; the sad sensible Mimi (Jasmine Curtis-Smith); the cool Glenn (Anthony Falcon [Agent X-44!]); the sleek adventurous Jinka (Glaiza de Castro). Tonichi seems to be dating Jinka and Mimi has a drink with Glenn but they talk to each other with the familiarity of good old friends. Tonichi cares for his mother Ella (Dolly De Leon), Mimi for her father Fabian (Soliman Cruz); the two are shipping their parents, more an idle dream than a serious plan. Dayao doesn’t dwell too long on these connections — he has plenty of other fish to fry — but the sketches do help his characters stay in mind, so you care if they survive, or die violently, or (most disturbing of all) are abstracted into oblivion.
Does Dayao succeed? I say he stumbles as well as soars, but there’s a crazed integrity to his stubborn need not to walk the well trod path; he’s out there in the ether, in the deep dark, and you follow at your peril. One of the best of the year, easily.