A very dark nook
FILM REVIEW: Nuuk - Ferdinand Topacio (The Philippine Star) - November 11, 2019 - 12:00am

The capital of Greenland is a tiny city of 18,000 people (Barangay Guadalupe Viejo in Makati has twice the population). It is in a highly-developed country with practically no poverty, with everyone earning good wages and enjoying a high standard of living. So, everyone there should be happy and safe, right?

Well, wrong. For Nuuk is dark, dreary, depressing and desolate. It has long, sub-zero winters and short (and still very cold) summers. It is, in fact, so cold that even the flowers one brings to the graveyard have to be made of plastic, as natural ones quickly wither in the frosty climate.

The suicide rate is one of the highest in Europe, as a local newsman reports in the movie’s opening. In that frigid environment lives Elaisa Svendsen (Alice Dixson), a Filipina widow of a Greenlander. She is estranged from her son Karl (Ujarneq Fletcher), who blames her for his father’s death and his girlfriend’s breaking up with him.

Living alone and missing her husband, she suffers from bouts of depression. The story begins with her vainly trying to buy Prozac without a prescription from a pharmacy. Rebuffed, she serendipitously bumps into another Filipino, Mark Alvarez (Aga Muhlach), with a bottle of — you guessed it! — Prozac. She relentlessly pushes him into giving her some, “to tide her over the week”.

In spite of his misgivings, he gives in, only for Elaisa to overdose on the medicine. Panicking, she calls him for help. Guilt-stricken, he arrives and takes care of her. Thus, a beautiful friendship starts, only to lead to a quite ugly ending.

The divine Ms. Dixson could not have picked a better comeback vehicle than this skillfully-crafted film noir. Still ravishing at 50, even sans makeup as called for by the script, the deceptively simple story gives her the space to flex her thespic muscles. And flex them she does. Running the entire gamut of emotions from miserable to motherly, to manipulative, then to hopeful, lovestruck, bewildered and — in the final minutes of the film — horrified, she gives a masterful performance.

Muhlach, although underplaying his role, manages to dexterously keep pace; his transformation from a caring lover to a monster in the final act was jarring and totally unexpected, but deft and utterly convincing.

Even Fletcher, a newbie from Nuuk who is introduced in this film, gives a good account of himself as a troubled teen, all things considered. Director Veronica Velasco has indeed managed to motivate her actors well.

Nuuk the movie starts deliberately slow, reflecting the unhurried pace of everyday life in a sleepy town. But those who patiently sit through the leisurely and sometimes bewildering first and second acts, will be richly rewarded by a mind-boggling resolution. There, every question raised in the minds of the viewers will be explained in a few minutes, via a closely intercut montage straight out of the ending of the landmark thriller The Usual Suspects (1995). One is advised not to miss a single scene, as the clues to the logic behind the surprise ending are scattered throughout the film.

Nuuk the city, by the way, is photographed in grey, gloomy tones, often using only available light. As such, its landscape becomes an integral part of the movie, almost another character in itself, so much so that the dark undertones of the narrative could not have worked in a different location. The snow-blanketed terrain, sparsely dotted only by almost identical multicolored wooden houses, is unusually striking as a visual allegory. One is reminded of the ground-breaking Don’t Look Now (1973), where director Nicolas Roeg’s use of the damp and shadowy, maze-like alleys and canals of Venice, creepily set the tone for the horrors to come.

The dialogue flows so logically and naturally that one can gloss over the minor plot defects. One beef I have is the vagueness by which Elaisa is made blamable for the death of her husband, thus making the motivation of Karl’s character incomplete. Prescinding from that, however, the only major flaw in an otherwise seamless cinematic tale is that the story arc lost momentum when the action shifted to the Philippines, specifically Dakak Resort. While the change did not substantially affect thematic unity, the difference in locale was totally unnecessary and contributed nothing to the development of the plot. The events that transpired in Dakak could have plausibly happened in Nuuk, without the disruption in atmosphere and ambiance.

On the whole, however, Nuuk gives us something very far removed from the usual love stories and unfunny comedies that have always been on offer from the local movie industry. Daring and ambitious, it has a slow-burning fuse with an explosive ending. And it hits close to the mark of what it aims to achieve: an intelligent, somber exposition of the darkest nooks of the human psyche.

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