Truly mind-bending

Ferdinand S. Topacio - The Philippine Star
Truly mind-bending
Director Sigrid Andrea Bernardo’s seeming preference for the Rashomon effect is given full-blown treatment in the movie, which stars Xian Lim and Cristine Reyes. Different versions of truth compete and converge into a distinct denouement.

MANILA, Philippines — “Truth is rarely pure and never simple,” so once said playwright Oscar Wilde. Auteur Sigrid Andrea Bernardo takes that adage to an absurdist reduction, resulting in a nightmarish dive into the deepest, darkest recesses of the human psyche.

Cristine Reyes is Mara, a Filipina who has been working in Tbilisi, Georgia barely three months. There, she encounters Joachim, played by Xian Lim, a Filipino vineyard owner who emigrated five years earlier. In short order, they fall in love and get married on an impulse. But things are not what they seem. If she is to be believed, he is insane; if we listen to him, she’s stark raving crazy.         

Beginning with a bruised and battered Mara narrating to the police, her tale is told mainly through flashbacks. She details in a big and bold relief how she serendipitously meets Joachim and marries him after a whirlwind romance, only to find out to her shock that he is a deeply disturbed man wont to bouts of violence and haunted by the specter of a “girl in uniform.” The narrative then suddenly segues to Joachim consulting with his therapist, this time telling a story — again related via flashback — of how psychologically infirm Mara is, and how prone she is to bellicose behavior and hallucinations about the same girl. Scarcely have the two conflicting versions concluded when the storyline jarringly and without warning jumps to another flashback, this time involving Joachim back in his days in the Philippines as a school guidance counsellor who had a torrid affair with a student (Rhen Escano) that led to disastrous consequences. The three stories then intersect in the middle of the third act, neatly tying up all the trajectories of the story arc into one forceful finish that will leave the viewer breathless.

Having seen Cristine twice before, in 2011’s No Other Woman and Trophy Wife (2014), I know her to be a capable actress, but I did not expect any sort of thespic aptitude from Xian, who I only previously saw once, in Dear Other Self (2017). Thinking of him as a pretty boy with only middling acting talents, I was profoundly impressed with the level of dramatic proficiency he exhibited in this film. Playing against type and practically unrecognizable as a balbas-sarado expat, he managed to express the degree of unexplained anguish, deep despair and a spiraling descent into madness his role required without resorting to overacting or caricature. As against such potent performance, Cristine very adroitly — and wisely — chose to underact, instead conveying her emotions through the barest minimum of expressions and gestures. The result is such well-balanced ensemble acting that the scenery was never chewed up. Rhen Escano, fresh from her acting triumph in Adan (2019), once again impressed (and I do not impress easily) as the third main character, gullible schoolgirl Ana, who allowed herself to be sexually used and abused by Joachim. Fresh of face and capable of looking guileless, she was highly convincing playing the part of a nubile Lolita. She managed to inject complexity into a role that an actress of lesser caliber would have played one-dimensionally. Naïve at the start of her affair with the much-older Joachim, she began to exhibit an awakening sensuality that heats up the screen to an extent I have not seen in a long time. The sense of betrayal she was able to convey after Joachim abandoned her, and her eventual emotional meltdown, was a bravura performance. Verily, Rhen is becoming the go-to performer for unconventional roles that require that rare and elaborate mix of innocent eroticism and emotive depth.

Director Sigrid’s seeming preference for the Rashomon effect (named after the 1950 movie of Akira Kurosawa, one of the greatest directors of all time), only slightly hinted at in her Kita Kita (2017), is given full-blown treatment here, as different versions of truth compete and converge into a distinct denouement. The movie is also redolent with symbolism: The leads are all into erotic bondage, which symbolizes domination and submission in their relationships; the recurring image of Kartlis Deda, the icon for the Georgian Republic, who holds a sword in one hand to ward off her enemies and a glass of wine in the other to welcome her friends (so the movie tells us), is an allegory of the bipolar fascination of eros/thanatos that the characters have for each other. Even Tbilisi and her people and culture form an integral part of the movie, providing much of the atmosphere against which the tragic tale is played.

Untrue is not an easy film to watch. It is a frightening foray into the lies that men are capable of laying down in the name of love and lust, leading to the precarious precipice of perdition. But like forbidden sexual games, it is hard to resist, providing mind-bending moments of ecstasy resulting in a release that will make you want to scream.

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