MMFF 2019: Navigate the Cramped, Cruel Spaces of Metro Manila with the Great Horror Movie ‘Sunod’

TL;DR: Sunod wraps the story of a single mother trying to survive late capitalism with her daughter around a fantastic horror movie filled with memorable imagery.

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It’s apparent during the first few minutes of Sunod (Next) just how strained & dreary the spaces single middle-aged mother Olivia (Carmina Villaroel) navigates. She sleeps near her daughter Annelle (Krystal Brimner), who’s confined in a single-patient room at a private hospital due to her congenital heart disease. It’s spare, slightly disorganized, & it contains their necessities & a few items they hold dear, like various pictures of the two of them taped to a wall & a guitar Annelle uses to play songs to her mother, highlighting how further it is from their actual home.

The view outside isn’t any different either. Cloudy skies hover over Metro Manila while covering it in never-ending rain & fog, and headlights & street lights shine a path to people heading to their work or home amidst a gloomy night. Even Olivia doesn’t get any respite in her sleep, as she’s haunted by nightmares of Annelle being buried during a heavy storm, while tentacles rise above the wet soil & hold her down. Annelle is all she has in this world, & the fear of losing her consumes her every day.

Sadly Annelle needs to stay longer in the hospital than she anticipated & Olivia can’t afford to keep their current room in a few more days, so she’s forced to find a job as soon as possible. It’s rare we see Olivia roam the streets of Metro Manila throughout the whole movie, but the few instances we do confirms how lonely & alienating it is. It’s as if everyone is just like her, constantly on the move because their life depended on it. She’s left to fend off for herself, but she stumbles on a college job expo & lands a job as a call center agent through sheer luck & her proficiency of the English language. She’ll be answering customer service calls by night & take care of her daughter during the day.

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The call center where majority of Sunod takes place stands out for its sheer incongruity. It’s housed inside an art deco building that appears to be the First United Building, a famous heritage building in the city of Manila. It was completed in 1928 & it’s one of the few remaining buildings that survived World War 2 & reckless demolitions that show off Philippines’ complete disregard to its history. Within the movie’s universe though, it was also built before World War 2 & still stood afterwards, but it was turned into a prestigious hospital that later shut down due to mysterious circumstances. Now, the building is reopened as an office space for anyone who’s interested.

The glitz & glamour of the building can be seen in the reception, with ornate statues, marble columns & simple, slick details that greet anyone who comes in, but it’s a facade that quickly falls apart. Not all floors are occupied, since they are still under renovation, filled with construction materials.

The call center Olivia works for is drab & ominous. Employees are surrounded by unpainted concrete walls, closed blinds, & multiple concrete columns that loom over everyone. It doesn’t help that she caught the unwanted attention of the company’s strict COO Karen (Mylene Dizon), who is always on the edge of berating any employee who makes the slightest mistake.

She does get some emotional support from her team lead Lance (JC Santos) & her new friend/colleague Mimi (Kate Alejandrino), & she still finds time to bond with her daughter, but it’s clear juggling both is taking a huge toll on her. Carmina Villaroel lets you feel the desperation & exhaustion Olivia been carrying for so long just so she can give the best for her daughter.

Sunod paints a nightmarish vision of Metro Manila that’s slightly heightened from our own, where every moment of warmth & kindness is either a brief reprieve from the constant grind of trying to survive under late capitalism or it’s merely a pretense for a transaction you didn’t know you signed up for. It’s a cold, ruthless world, & it’s even harder for single mothers like her who has to juggle family & work while facing different kinds of oppression.

That’s not even including the ghost of a young girl who starts stalking Olivia in the office.

Director Carlo Ledesma, along with cinematographer Mycko David, production designer Ericson Navarro, & the script by Anton Santamaria have done an excellent job establishing Olivia’s life & her surroundings without rushing its supernatural elements that by the time Olivia is haunted by a ghost, there’s already a weighty sense of dread & claustrophobia that’s inescapable. It’s not afraid to be nasty when it needs to be, which is atypical for an MMFF horror movie, although a scene depicting sexual assault that happens in the middle of the movie feels slightly gratuitous, even if it’s never exploitative. It uses jump scares with care & craft, and while the setup & execution aren’t novel, it is effective & brimming with stark, memorable imagery.

The third act is weaker though, as it turns into a series of confrontations that cut through the tension & mystique it built before, but it never loses the craft & commentary that made it so great. The reason behind the evil machinations in the movie are surprising & will leave some audiences frustrated, but that’s what makes it more horrifying. It comes back to the building itself. It’s alluring veneer can’t hide what happened before. And sadly, people who don’t have the means to rise above the harsh systems in place – who are just trying their best to get through another day – are the first ones to feel the effects of ignoring our past. Time will keep moving forward but history will haunt us all.