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For Whom the Bells Toll

Toto, a teenage orphan, is recruited by a notorious death squad. Irma, the group’s leader, soon becomes a maternal figure to the young boy.

The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry. — Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms

Toto (Timothy Castillo), the plucky teenager whose wayward quest to earn bail for his older brother’s freedom, is the intriguing start for a slow-burning exploration of nebulous innocence in Mikhail Red’s Neomanila, which can hardly be described as good or gentle. Perhaps he’s brave, given that he persists as a shabu runner in a political climate where shabu running grants you a one-way ticket to Hell. But better words for that would probably be foolish or reckless or desperate. He is hardly the innocent soul that one would root for to survive the government’s infamous war of drugs, but in an age where innocence is so scarce, his meager conscience — which prevents him from shooting a stray cat with a practice pistol — counts as precious treasure.

Red’s third feature film, which is structured like the noirs of old where heroes spiral downwards after being too attached to a mysterious vixen, is a mood piece that strives for exactitude, and almost achieves it. It is defiantly rooted in Duterte-era vulgarities, with most of its characters hardly exhibiting any modesty in their day-to-day affairs. They curse indiscriminately. They fornicate — sometimes in abandoned train wagons, sometimes wearing motorcycle helmets — but almost always for kicks and thrills. They define the margins, having thrived and survived within economies that require some callousness when it comes to trespassing moral laws. The setting’s well-painted. It is a grim metropolis that is almost devoid of innocence.

Toto’s femme fatale here is a middle-aged pest control expert who sidelines as a well-paid assassin of drug peddlers. Red makes a clever choice of blurring Toto’s attraction to his muse. At one point, Toto stares at her curves lustfully, but whenever they are together, the interactions never erupt sexually. They are always benign, almost reminiscent of the subtlest of maternal connections. That is exactly where the film draws its power. For sure, Neomanila is ferocious when it visualizes the violence and depravity that now defines the city, but it leaves enough room for a sizable heart, in the form of the blossoming but doomed relationship that will have one character make the decision to prioritize the littlest of innocence over life. In a city where life is dispensable, it makes troubling sense.

Khavn dela Cruz’s Balangiga: Howling Wilderness also features innocent lives embroiled in war. If Red’s film is a labyrinthine portrait of scant purity in an adamantly impure world, Dela Cruz’s feature is astoundingly straightforward. It essentially tells the story of a little boy (Justine Samson) who, with his grandfather, travels through the wilderness of Samar to make their way to safety from vengeful American troops who massacred both the people and the livestock of their titular hometown. What is most fascinating about Balangiga is how it molds the deceptively simple plot to enunciate the glaring terrors of war.

Every now and then, the film breaks from the monotony of the fruitless journey to showcase wild visions of apt perversions. A masturbating vicar mouthing profane scriptures appears. A crippled musician with a dilapidated guitar starts to make awful music. Dela Cruz seems to follow no logic, but logic is hardly logical in a place where humanity has abandoned its very own precious humanity.

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To call Balangiga grotesque will not be very far from the truth, yet its flagrant grotesqueness is not one that lacks elegance or beauty. It is perhaps the film’s nearly perfect blend of vice and virtue, simplicity and sophistication, ugliness and grace, brutality and purity, and violence and levity, that makes it so heart wrenching. It treats history with profound irreverence, turning it into a diving board for enunciating the stark emotions that define not war, but the wastefulness of it. Balangiga is an anti-Western Western. It is a film that wears all of its influences on its sleeve, but it never feels like a replica because Dela Cruz’s distinct punk aesthetic is all over what essentially is a poignantly tender picture.

Balangiga is an affecting ode to the persistence of innocence. It is also a painful elegy for it, for goodness, for gentleness, for bravery.

Eight-year-old Kulas flees town with his grandfather and their carabao to escape General Smith’s “Kill & Burn” order in Balangiga: The Howling Wilderness.

Toto (Timothy Castillo), the plucky teenager whose wayward quest to earn bail for his older brother’s freedom, is the intriguing start for a slow-burning exploration of nebulous innocence in Mikhail Red’s Neomanila, which can hardly be described as good or gentle. Perhaps he’s brave, given that he persists as a shabu runner in a political climate where shabu running grants you a one-way ticket to Hell. But better words for that would probably be foolish or reckless or desperate. He is hardly the innocent soul that one would root for to survive the government’s infamous war on drugs, but in an age where innocence is so scarce, his meager conscience — which prevents him from shooting a stray cat with a practice pistol — counts as precious treasure.

Red’s third feature film, which is structured like the noirs of old where heroes spiral downwards after being too attached to a mysterious vixen, is a mood piece that strives for exactitude, and almost achieves it. It is defiantly rooted in Duterte-era vulgarities, with most of its characters hardly exhibiting any modesty in their day-to-day affairs. They curse indiscriminately. They fornicate — sometimes in abandoned train wagons, sometimes wearing motorcycle helmets — but almost always for kicks and thrills. They define the margins, having thrived and survived within economies that require some callousness when it comes to trespassing moral laws. The setting’s well-painted. It is a grim metropolis that is almost devoid of innocence.

Toto’s femme fatale here is a middle-aged pest control expert who sidelines as a well-paid assassin of drug peddlers. Red makes a clever choice of blurring Toto’s attraction to his muse. At one point, Toto stares at her curves lustfully, but whenever they are together, the interactions never erupt sexually. They are always benign, almost reminiscent of the subtlest of maternal connections. That is exactly where the film draws its power. For sure, Neomanila is ferocious when it visualizes the violence and depravity that now defines the city, but it leaves enough room for a sizable heart, in the form of the blossoming but doomed relationship that will have one character make the decision to prioritize the littlest of innocence over life. In a city where life is dispensable, it makes troubling sense.

Khavn dela Cruz’s Balangiga: Howling Wilderness also features innocent lives embroiled in war. If Red’s film is a labyrinthine portrait of scant purity in an adamantly impure world, Dela Cruz’s feature is astoundingly straightforward. It essentially tells the story of a little boy (Justine Samson) who, with his grandfather, travels through the wilderness of Samar to make their way to safety from vengeful American troops who massacred both the people and the livestock of their titular hometown. What is most fascinating about Balangiga is how it molds the deceptively simple plot to enunciate the glaring terrors of war.

Every now and then, the film breaks from the monotony of the fruitless journey to showcase wild visions of apt perversions. A masturbating vicar mouthing profane scriptures appears. A crippled musician with a dilapidated guitar starts to make awful music. Dela Cruz seems to follow no logic, but logic is hardly logical in a place where humanity has abandoned its very own precious humanity.

To call Balangiga grotesque will not be very far from the truth, yet its flagrant grotesqueness is not one that lacks elegance or beauty. It is perhaps the film’s nearly perfect blend of vice and virtue, simplicity and sophistication, ugliness and grace, brutality and purity, and violence and levity, that makes it so heart wrenching. It treats history with profound irreverence, turning it into a diving board for enunciating the stark emotions that define not war, but the wastefulness of it. Balangiga is an anti-Western Western. It is a film that wears all of its influences on its sleeve, but it never feels like a replica because Dela Cruz’s distinct punk aesthetic is all over what essentially is a poignantly tender picture.

Balangiga is an affecting ode to the persistence of innocence. It is also a painful elegy for it, for goodness, for gentleness, for bravery.

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