TL;DR: This mindfuck the director of Heneral Luna is a relentless attack on the entertainment industry & a sympathetic, slightly problematic view of how abuse haunts those who are affected by it.
Jane Ciego (Iza Calzado) is a famous actress working in showbiz since she was a kid with the help of her overbearing stage mother (Shamaine Buencamino). She hopes to finally bag an award in a movie where not only is she the lead actress, but also its producer. While working on set, she is injures due to an accident caused by a faulty rig on set. It leaves her paralyzed from the waist down, forcing her to use a wheel chair. Her husband (TJ Trinidad) decided they would stay at a rest house in order to regain her strength. However, strange things are happening inside the house. She hears voices of people whispering & unnatural noises coming from the walls. It doesn’t help that her husband isn’t allowing her to leave the house or contact anyone else & her nurse Lilibeth (Adrienne Vergara) is a callous woman seemingly motivated to make her life miserable. Slowly, she starts to question the two people taking care of her & her sense of reality.
What unfolds is one of the most controversial Filipino movies released in recent years. It gained notoriety thanks to the Movie & Television Ratings Classification Board (MTRCB) slapping it with an X rating, meaning the movie isn’t allowed to be shown commercially. It gained an R-18 rating after a 2nd review without a need to cut any scenes; which is still harsh seeing as it isn’t as gory or sexually explicit as other movies.
Solely focusing on the brouhaha would be a huge disservice to this outstanding mindfuck from Jerrold Tarog. This is a twisted tale that finds an ingenious way to talk about how the entertainment industry molds women to fit certain roles, exploiting & commodifying them until they’ve been completely hollowed out; how that same machinery negatively affects people outside the industry – especially those who weren’t fated to enter it – & the ways abuse – including rape – haunts those who’ve been inflicted with it. It’s a deeply cynical film focusing on our ability to be egotistical & cruel in an industry that enables & rewards these impulses, but avoids becoming a shallow, mean-spirited diatribe.
It helps that Jerrold Tarog couched this in the realm of psychological thriller – a genre that’s rarely produced in the Philippines anymore – using his signature non-linear narrative. But what he does here is even trickier compared to the rest of his work, since he now has to apply that structure in a story where a character’s sense of reality is dissolving before our eyes, while revealing the stories of people who found themselves in Jane’s orbit for different reasons.
And he pulls it off with aplomb. He still doles out important details whenever they will make the most impact, but when it moves from one character to the another, he uses Jane’ s story as the main anchor holding everything together while. Tarog switches from different scenes with clever match cuts – like someone’s head being bashed with a vase & cutting to a glass containing strawberry juice breaking on the floor – pieces of dialogue, & going back to Jane. It’s an approach that might be confusing, but never infuriating, since he’s not stringing the audience along a sleek, stylish puzzle with nothing on its mind.
It is stylish though, in a way that doesn’t intrude on the movie’s intentions. It’s nothing too crazy, but one where images create a vibe of unease, where bursts of violence can break out any moment. Cinematographer Mackie Galvez keeps his shots close to Iza Calzado’s face, trapping us with her. These scenes are punctuated by moments of brutality, often sexually tinged, where bloodshed is imminent, which will give way to surreal imagery, creating a uncomfortable mix never meant to titillate anyone.
All of this wouldn’t be possible if Tarog hadn’t cast Iza Calzado at the role. She’s the one tying everything together, showing us every facet of her personality during her life before the accident while trying to fight back at her captors. But the standout performance comes from Adrienne Vergara. She can be menacing & childish at the same time, exploring the dark soul of a woman broken down by the film industry & the women surrounding her.
The rest of the cast are stacked too. Audie Gamora is great as a self-absorbed director pursuing his passion project with Jane. Michael de Mesa is conniving as a Boy Abunda analogue feeding the machinery to keep it alive. Self-centered stage mothers don’t get any better with Shamaine Buencamino, which doesn’t even reward her daughter Jane with affection even if she benefits from her daughter’s riches. TJ Trinidad is great as Jane’s husband eager to use her money for his business while treating her badly. Ian Veneracion has fun subverting his reputation by playing a charming asshole who uses his stardom to sleep with other women; even if he’s married.
However, the approach chosen by Jerrold Tarog skirts toward cheapening the experience of rape victims. It doesn’t allow for a nuanced look, especially because of the way the story plays out, & recalls the way pop culture has often used rape as a backstory for villains; even if there is historical precedent for it. The movie does have its sympathies with the victim, which helps a lot taking the edge of it, but it is still a bit questionable.
Even with those problems, this movie is worth watching. It has risked controversy by tackling mature themes & putting it inside a work of genre filmmaking; and it mostly works. It begins with a puzzle, slowly unravelling to reveal its pitch black assault on the entertainment industry while treating those unlucky enough to become its victims with sympathy. We should all be grateful for it.