TL;DR By combining a grounded romantic comedy with its own take on the manananggal mythos, Ang Manananggal sa Unit 23B is an ambitious, intoxicating movie you shouldn’t miss.
Jewel (Ryza Cenon) is a lonely woman living by herself in an apartment. The closest thing she has to a friend is a pet turtle she calls Edward. One day, a man named Nico (Martin del Rosario) moves in at one of the units with his grandmother (Vangie Labalan). Both of them strike up a friendship that blossoms into something more.
But there’s a problem: Jewel is a manananggal, a vampire-like mythical creature in the Philippines, who haunts the night by splitting herself in half, leaving her torso behind to fly away & devour unborn fetuses from pregnant women or the hearts of unlucky humans. The movie’s unique spin on this iconic monster is she can walk among humans & has no control of her appetite. When it hits, she will undergo immense pain, & can only curb it temporarily by rubbing a special oil on her belly. Then, she will lurk night clubs looking for potential victims, lure them into having sex, kill her victim, & gorge on their remains to satisfy her hunger. To make sure no one suspects anything wrong, she leaves behind a piece of cardboard with this text written on it: “Wag tularan. Pusher ako” (Don’t imitate me. I’m a drug pusher.)
You can already tell Ang Manananggal sa Unit 23B (The Manananggal in Unit 23B) has lots on its mind just by reading the previous paragraphs. It delves in the ways female sexuality is feared & suppressed, & how Duterte’s drug war has allowed for malevolent forces to exploit broken systems for their own gains. The movie’s political & feminist subtext makes it thematically richer & surprisingly relevant.
Sure, it looks like a bunch of ideas thrown together, but it works thanks to the love story at its core. This is Prime Cruz & Jen Chuansu’s most ambitious effort to date, where their knack for crafting relatable characters engaging in amusing conversations is mixed horror with a sociopolitical bent. While Martin del Rosario & Ryza Cenon’s chemistry isn’t as strong as it should be, it doesn’t fall apart because they’re both have charming & the writing never fails them. Ryza Cenon is the absolute standout, revealing the multiple facets of Jewel’s personality & being with ease. They’re even backed up by the great Vangie Labalan, who makes the role of the eager, supportive grandmother endearing & funny instead of annoying.
It also helps the movie sells the realities between Jewel’s double life, thanks to the top-notch production design, cinematography & musical choices. The veneer of normalcy is presented during the day, with drab greys highlighting the loneliness between the characters. Nico’s unit is a clean, organized, middle class home. Jewel’s unit has more ornate furnishings, but it still looks like an ordinary unit. But this movie, just like Jewel, comes out at night. That veneer is removed during the dark, giving way to stark, often neon-filled lighting that invites us to a world of mystery & terror that’s beyond us. Even Jewel’s unit reflects this, with neon red & green lights flooding the room, emphasizing Jewel’s duality. Since this is another Prime Cruz movie, the soundtrack & synth-heavy score is aces. It is evocative, memorable, & captures the isolation & danger the characters are caught in.
The current cut we’re getting for Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino is different from the one delivered in the QCinema Film Festival 2016. Nico’s arc is kept to a bare minimum, almost removing any traces of his struggles as a man who stopped fighting his own battles, literally & metaphorically. While it does make for a leaner movie that ramps up its central tension quicker than before, Nico turns into a flatter character & his actions in the movie’s 2nd half lose some of its weight.
Even if that were the case, it doesn’t detract from the movie’s merits. Prime Cruz’s 2nd effort was, & still is a masterful blend of romantic comedy & horror, elevated by its ideas on female sexuality & the current political climate, wrapped in a charming package.