Monday, May 19, 2014

Graceland (2012)

The overpowering effect of the Sean Ellis film "Metro Manila" (2013) had barely faded, when this reviewer had the pleasure of coming across another grim tale set in the heartland of the Philippines. "Graceland" (2012), written and directed by Ron Morales also takes the viewer on a gut-wrenching tour of the debased, sleazy and squalid side of Metro Manila. While Ellis's film showcased the plight of a gullible country farmer ravaged by a greedy and corrupt urban environment, "Graceland" is a complex kidnap drama which revolves around two fathers in a similar predicament, albeit separated in their socioeconomic status and stand in society.

Moving at an unrelenting pace, Ron Morales cooks up a heady broth rich with ingredients such as corruption, scandal, kidnapping and murder. Changho (Menggie Cobarrubias) is a top politician in Manila, a congressman with a sordid secret life. Almost regularly, he picks up girls from the illicit red light district that is involved in the sex trade of underage girls, drugs them and has sexual relations with them. Changho is a powerful man who knows how to buy his way out of a backlash on his career, because inherently, everyone is willing to sell out and submit to his power.

His faithful driver Marlon (Arnold Reyes) has been in his service for 8 years. Apart from being a regular chauffeur for him, he is also the clean-up guy. He clears the mess left by his boss, and drops the girls to their respective homes. Ironically both men have daughters the age of the girls who are exploited by Changho. Marlon clearly doesn't like this, but he is under an emotional and financial pressure.

He has an ailing wife in the hospital with a prolonged illness that can be cured only by an organ transplant. Despite his reservations about his boss' filthy acts, it is the salary and the extra buck as the assistant that he can't seem to pass up. Marlon's daughter Elvie (Ella Guevara) and Changho's daughter Sophia (Patricia Gayod) are great friends, much to the chagrin of Mrs. Marcy Changho (Marife Necesito). But the girls are barely at an age where they can understand the inherent class divide between them.

A twist of fate disturbs the status quo, and Changho's little sex secret makes headlines in the form of yet unproved allegations. This is followed by Marlon's dismissal from his job. Things couldn't get any worse, when in their final trip home, the kidnapping of the girls occurs, part of which goes horribly wrong. And yet the kidnapper assigns Marlon the task of delivering the ransom message to his boss. A panic-stricken Marlon finds himself in a big soup as he becomes a potential suspect, being the only witness and having just been fired from his job. The scene gets murkier and twistier as it begins to appear that ransom isn't the only motive for the kidnapping.

Morales' story may seem to be a routine kidnap and hostage drama on the surface, but there's a lot more going on in this elaborate scheme of things. He first sets the stage by introducing his audiences to the system which is the universe in which the film is set. All the squalor, the protagonists' dingy abode and humble living conditions, the sicknesses, the corrupt officials and the shady state of affairs, the seedy red light areas, little children begging for food outside posh clubs, all give a pretty clear image of how such surroundings may influence the people living in it and how almost everything that transpires could be a systemic effect.

The gap between the rich and the poor, and the weak and the powerful is huge. The powerful have it way too easy, while the weak have no option but to be submissive. There is also a disturbingly close and realistically uncompromising look at child prostitution that could make you lose faith in humanity. Morales sometimes uses the handheld camera technique, especially in moments brimming with urgency that are filmed in a style that makes it look like a docudrama. The colouration gives off a dreary air, almost highlighting the hopelessness of some of the characters.

As the plot thickens and more characters make their way into the story, including Detective Ramos (Dido De La Paz), it is realized that there is hardly any grace in this land! There is nary a soul around who is completely pure. And given the architecture of this system, it doesn't come as a shock to see morals being compromised and rules being bent by almost everyone as they exhibit their respective shades of grey.

No one seems to play it totally straight and everyone has an ulterior motive. But as strange as it may seem, we tend to find empathy with some of these characters and it isn't entirely difficult to understand their motivations. The plot itself centers around a kidnapping gone wrong, and while we are more or less certain that it is headed for a definite doom, there are some very intriguing, aptly timed, game-changing twists that catch you unawares. It is the narrative trajectory that keeps us on the edge as a turn of events sees all three men involved, Ramos, Changho and Marlon make the case their personal agenda.

As the distinction between victim and perpetrator gradually becomes invisible, we find ourselves rooting for Marlon as he gets suffocatingly cornered into a quagmire from which there seems to be no escape. It is Reyes' towering performance that makes Marlon's pain and anguish palpable. This is one spectacular turn of a lead act that is applause-worthy. He is very well supported by Menggie Cobarrubias as the seedy politician, Dido De La Paz as the not-so-straight cop and Leon Miguel as the kidnapper. Little Ella Guevara excels as Elvie with her heartbreakingly sincere performance.

The film does fumble a bit with one fatal flaw and some heavy-handed approach to storytelling, especially in the final frames that spoonfeed the audience with flashbacks. For an otherwise mature approach, such a device wasn't necessary. But these problems need to be overlooked, for "Graceland" is an edgy, morally complex tale with a sharp script that certainly accomplishes what it sets out to achieve, and leaves us stunned, as we are left gathering our thoughts and regaining composure.

Score: 8/10


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