Pepe Diokno’s “Engkwentro” (“Clash,” 2009) is a portrait painted with nightmarish fatalism; no one in its decrepit, labyrinthine slums dare dream of a way out, because even that, they can’t afford–what with the omniscient mayor’s voice (borrowing that of Celso Ad Castillo’s) that confirms their pettiness, nags through their choking radios, and grins, in exuberant morbidity, on campaign posters torn from the ramshackle households that he belittles. This voice disembodies itself from its owner and is heard from the slum’s dead-ends and fetid gutters in blinding daylight and in betraying darkness. His constant denials of involvement in the alleged state-sponsored vigilantism reveal a harrowing picture of tyranny, in which the mayor, despite his absence: steps on his city’s petty criminals, as he shrugs off the jokes that they are.
This is to be felt bitingly, the brave Diokno makes sure, for which reason he makes clever use of the observational aesthetic, in which he revels in hand-held shots and conversational dialogue, edited (by Miko Araneta) to appear as if the film is shot, at one long take, in real-time. This aesthetic choice does two things for the film: first, it (doubled with the gravel-hued cinematography by Emman Pascual), provides an added sense of realism as the film’s camera gets lured by the characters, capturing an intimate observation of the film’s impoverished slums, if, for the same reason, distances the spectators from the film’s initial pursuit. Second, also, through this distancing effect of such technical daring, conceals the flaws of what is otherwise a spot-on script-work. The result is still biting, with Diokno–the skillful technician that he is–finding the striking divide between style and substance, and obviously, being more attentive to the former; which is unfortunate, especially to a film of great daring like his.
There’s a better film in “Engkwentro,” even if it is, by default, great; and this is despite the inherent betrayal of its form. One flourish I regard with much admiration is the film’s affinity to darkness, which, in my own sanguine interpretation, is to be taken as the only escape provided in the film. The film’s visceral chase-sequence, filmed with incredible technical fluency, and the two brothers’ (Felix Roco and Daniel Medrana) merciless conclude, are all surrounded with darkness–the figurative and the literal kind. One glint of light is found in the film’s midsection: a particular scene in which Eda Nolan’s character asks her friend for money. That friend (played by Bianca Balbuena) may be looked at as her “fairy godmother,” (see: the wing costume she wears) lending her the three-hundred pesos that will get her out of the slums. When all is said and done, that glint of light fades out, just like when the clock strikes midnight, in this film’s case: two in the morning, we find her alone, awaiting her lover.
Then the screen, slowly, as if mockingly, becomes devoured by darkness, which tells us, and rather savagely too, that it has let its characters–the only ones who dared dream of an escape–live their fantasy, in the nagging voice, I imagine, of the mayor.