Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Graceland [2012]

MPAA (R)  Michael Phillips (3 1/2 Stars) AVClub (B+)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review
AVClub (T. Robinson) review

Graceland [2012] (written and directed by Filipino-American veteran Hollywood camera man/key grip turned director Ron Morales) is an award winning Tagalog language / English subtitled indie film that played the festival circuit last year and is currently enjoying a limited release in the United States (including at Facets Multimedia here in Chicago and is available for viewing on Amazon-Instant Video).

The film has served as a reminder to me of a number of things: (1) the substantial number of Filipino-Americans in the United States the vast majority of whom would have come here as Catholics, (2) that within the film industry in Hollywood there would be Filipino-Americans like Ron Morales who would have been working for many years in Hollywood in the more technical aspects of the field (in Morales' case as a  cameraman/key grip) before striking out to produce an "indie project" or two of their own, (3) the Philippines itself has long had a substantial television/film industry of its own (in part a product/consequence of the 50 years when the United States controlled the Philippines as a protectorate/colony).  I have visited Filipino-American households that have appeared to subscribe to  Tagalog language satellite/cable services in much the same way as I've seen Indian-American households subscribing to Hindi/Tamil/Bengali etc services as well.  

All this is to say that I'm both happy to have come across this film during the last several weeks and realize that I currently can't put it in the context of other Filipino films being produced today.  As an indie film, my sense is that it's probably "on the edge" though I honestly like American indie films precisely because they are freer to discuss topics that more conservative/profit-oriented films could not.  In any case, the film offers me an opportunity to take a greater interest in the future with regards to what's happening in Filipino cinema these days.  I made it a point to attend Chicago's Polish Film Festival last year because there are so many Catholics of Polish decent who live in the United States (and especially then in Chicago).  I've already found that there's a (smaller) annual Chicago Filipino American Film Festival as well (I would presume that the bigger ones would be held in California where the Filipino community is larger).  So I'll see what I can attend in the coming year ;-)

But let's get to the film ... which is, in fact, one heck of a story and perhaps a brave one (if certainly a troubling one) at that:

Graceland is about an "everyman" of sorts named Marlon Villar (played by Arnold Reyes).  He's been serving as "a driver" for a corrupt petty Filipino congressman named Mr Manuel Mangho (played by Menggie Cobarrubias) living presumably in Manila.  Among other vices, Rep. Mangho has developed a penchant for child prostitutes (yes folks, this is a rather blunt/unflinching film...).  As a result, among other jobs that Marlon's had, has been that he's had to get these child prostitutes taken home after Rep. Mangho's finished with them. (The film is unclear as to whether it was also Marlon's job to "pick-up" and perhaps even "pick-out" the child-prostitutes to begin with...)   In any case near the beginning of the film, we see Marlon being asked by Mangho to stay with a drugged child-prostitute until she woke-up, getting her dressed and then taking her home.  He's also given an envelope by Mangho to give to the family as presumably payment for both "services rendered" and above all to "keep their mouths shut..."

One assumes that Marlon's done this "task" for Mangho before. Well this time, things don't go as planned.  When Marlon drops-off the still groggy/traumatized girl, he's confronted by her grandmother who  hits him over the head several times with a broom, chasing him from their front door to his car.  When he tries to pull out the envelope with the hush money, she just hits him again.  She's not interested ... and ... he's not particularly interested in arguing with her.

Job done, sort of, he goes home and puts his own daughter (about the same age as the child-prostitute) to bed ...

Why does Marlon take/stay in a job like that?  Well for financial and social coercive reasons.  First, he's been working as Mangho's driver for 8 years. It is possible that Mangho wasn't nearly (or certainly not as overtly corrupt when Marlon began working for him).  Further during those eight years, Marlon's and Mangho's family have gotten to know each other.  Indeed, Marlon's daughter Elvie (played by Ella Guevara) and Mangho's daughter (played by Angeli Bayani) go to the same school (a school that Marlon's family otherwise probably could not afford) and the two girls (again about 12-13 years old) are best friends.  Marlon doesn't merely drive Mangho around/run his errands.  He also drives Mangho's daughter and his own daughter to and from said school.  Further, Mangho's English-interspersed-with-her-Tagalog speaking (even higher-class/trophy?) wife Marcy (played by Marife Necesito) has definitely come to trust Marlon in a "good and faithful servant" (she's definitely above him and can tell him what to do) sort of way.   Finally, we find that Marlon's wife (Ellie's mom) is gravely ill, lying in a substandard hospital and it's obvious that Marlon needs the money, indeed, honestly maybe more money than he makes even with this job.

Okay, given that Rep. Mangho is a corrupt pol, he's in a sense "playing tag" (more like "political Russian Roulette") with the Press and the kin of those whose daughters/granddaughters/nieces he's been abusing.  So a few days after Marlon had that rather ugly encounter with the grandmother of the 12 or 13 year old girl that he dropped-off at her house after Mangho had drugged and raped her, the story (surprise, surprise...) makes the front pages of the Manila Press.

Angry, Mangho gives Marlon another envelope with 3 months salary and fires him for (as he would consider it) leaking or, better, not "plugging" the story (Didn't he give Marlon an envelope to give to the relatives of the girl to keep their mouths shut?  Yes, but that irate grandmother didn't want the money... And for whatever reason -- disgust, shame, or ... his own need for the money -- Marlon chose not to press the issue).

Well, summarily fired though he may have been, Marlon still had the task of picking-up his and the Mangho's daughters from school.  Yet this afternoon after he does so as he's on the expressway, he's pulled over by what appears to be angry cop.  Okay, he did something wrong or perhaps he's just being further shaken down...  However, it soon becomes clear that this time it's more than that.  The "cop" (whether he's an actual police officer or not) appears to be part of a gang of thugs who've come to kidnap Mangho's daughter.  But there are two girls in the car.  So after a van comes screaching by and stops next to Marlon's car, the "police officer's" motorcycle parked behind, the abductors take ... both girls.

What a mess.  Marlon's just been fired.  Now he has to explain to his former and still very powerful boss (and actually his boss' wife first) that he's lost their daughter (and indeed his own).  How exactly does one do that?  And yes Mangho, of course, assumes first that Marlon himself kidnapped his (Margho's) daughter and brings out his own thug, the (Police) Detective Ramos (played by Dido de la Paz), to extract and beat if necessary the truth out of him.  All the while, Marlon's wondering how he's going to get his own daughter back when he has no money to pay ransom and a sick wife, gravely ill, convalescing in an obviously lower-end hospital and one who lives only to see him (Marlon) and their daughter (Elvie) at the end each day.  How many excuses can he string together to explain to her why Elvie's with him when he visits her?

It soon becomes clear that the chief abductor, while interested in money (and a whole lot of it) is above all interested in revenge -- and not merely against Mangho but also against Marlon (for having been his driver/underling and hence at least in someway complicit in Mangho's crimes).

How does this get resolved?  Well, I'm not going to tell you ;-) except to say that the resolution is far more interesting than any Hollywood shootout and yet, also, frankly open-ended.  Who honestly was Marlon?   How guilty/complicit was he and ... honestly of what/what all?  This is a really sad/messy/troubled tale.  And it is available, English subtitled, online for rent/purchase for those who'd want to ponder it.

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