Film review Take me to Bang Bang Alley
Averill Pizarro (The Philippine Star) - October 4, 2013 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - The month of September may have come to a close, but the excitement over Bang Bang Alley is far from over. The omnibus film premiered in UP Film Institute’s Cine Adarna last month. It is the first feature for its three directors, who have nonetheless made names for themselves as artists, storytellers and visionaries through other media: Musician/actor/playwright Yan Yuzon, award-winning corporate and music video director King Palisoc, and rock icon Ely Buendia.

A motley crowd of students, artists and cinephiles was among the first to see the film — and I’m sure many other Filipinos can’t wait for the opportunity to do likewise. “Not bad for a first try?” prodded Ely as he took the stage after the screening. Not bad at all. Actually, pretty darn good.

The film opens with a 10-minute prologue, where Jimmy Santos plays a bodyguard spending a night off at a karaoke bar. In another room, a man sings My Way — a song that sends Jimmy back to memories of violence and crime, and brings us into the dark, blood-stained corners of Bang Bang Alley.

The first episode that follows is Yan’s Aso’t Pusa’t Daga, about a young journalist (Bela Padilla) who survives a political massacre and prepares to testify against the perpetrators — not far removed from our real life, where a crime this senseless has taken place in recent memory. Joel Torre gives a masterful performance as Governor Raul Fabella, an unusually bright politician, and the commander of the private army that engineers the massacre. The characters say what politicians and journalists today dare not or cannot.

It is to Yan’s credit as a writer that he avoids the pitfalls of idealizing or demonizing any of his characters, even as they are given more dialogue than we expect in a movie like this. The movie’s characters — from its politicians to its policemen to its hit men — are entirely fleshed out. Though at first it may seem easy to tell the good guys from bad, Yan asks hard questions about how deeply steeped in corruption our society is, and if any one of us is ever truly exempt. It’s also worth mentioning that aside from duties as writer/director, Yan also plays a small but key role in the film and gives one of the most convincing performances of the whole anthology.

Episode two is Makina, directed by King and written by the very talented Zig Marasigan. It tells the story of Emman (Gabe Mercado), a driver for a home-service massage company. One evening, Emman gets involved in a traffic accident, an incident that snowballs and spins out of control.

Of the three episodes, Makina is the one that takes its story the furthest — what does it take to make a man desperate? And what is a man capable of when he becomes so? Dialogue is sparse, and Gabe delivers as Emman, communicating the range of the character’s emotions, from resignation to rage to remorse, all within a span of minutes.

Zig’s storyline is deceptively simple, but it explores deep and complex aspects of human experience and emotion, touching on the themes of money, marriage, friendship, loneliness and loyalty. King, the most experienced of the three directors, has a steady, confident hand: His vision is clear, and he makes excellent use of all the details he introduces, making Makina perhaps the brightest gem in the lot.

The final act is Pusakal, written and directed by Ely. The recently-crowned Miss World 2013 Megan Young plays Abbey, a drugged-out rich kid forced to flee to Benguet after committing a crime, and there develops an unlikely friendship with an old lady, played by Perla Bautista, whose quiet existence masks a turbulent past.

The lady is based on a real person, whom Ely met years ago in Benguet — and really, the story is a tribute to her mettle and what it takes to clash with the powers that be. She is an old woman oppressed by the system; Megan plays a young woman attempting to outsmart it. What happens when these polar opposites are forced to live together and survive with each other’s help? What lessons do they learn or fail to learn as they go? It’s in part a love letter to Benguet and to its forgotten beauty, in part a subtle commentary on social justice, or lack thereof. Ely even makes a brief, pitch-perfect appearance toward the end.

Watching Bang Bang Alley was like reading a series of crime stories the way Quijano de Manila wrote about them — with the objectivity and detail of the news, and with the heart and narrative of a good feature. Mainstream moviegoers need not be intimidated by its film-noir feel: It is a pleasure to watch, engaging, surprising, at times even funny. It may be a bit rough around the edges, but Ely, Yan and King have made a significant contribution to Philippine cinema, and we are eager to see more.

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