Numbalikdiwa (Bobi Bonifacio, 2006)
Bobi Bonifacio's Numbalikdiwa starts promisingly. A young man goes home with a bag of skewered meat for his dinner, and proceeds to call his mother while munching on his food. Moments later, the door knob to his house alarms him of a possible visitor, who turns out to be a his friend who is inviting him to watch a basketball match. Right after scolding his friend for not knowing how to knock properly and sending him off, a darkened monstrous hand grabs him by the neck.
The narrative proper starts after the introductory sequence. We are introduced to Anton (Ping Medina) who is bothered by his ailing grandmother (Estrella Kuenzller) of a certain ritual ceremony called numbalikdiwa which Anton is supposed to continue practicing. Evidently, Anton seems to be bothered by his grandmother's persistence. The next morning, Anton brings Karissa (Meryll Soriano), his adopted sister and love interest, to their barbecue store where they daily roast skewered meat for their customers, including wealthy couple Carlos (Albert Martinez) and Portia (Maricel Soriano). Karissa is secretly in love with affluent Carlos but is aware that she will be unable to match the beauty, grace, and intelligence of Portia. That night, after a car accident involving Karissa, Anton is forced to perform the numbalikdiwa.
The ritual of numbalikdiwa, according to the film's website is "An ancient, macabre ritual where the dead assumes the body of a living person. Like cannibalism, it involves the ingestion of the deceased’s ground meat and bones as part of the ritual. With the help of the Sasigloho, an ancient tribal deity,the dead assumes the identity of the living and continues to live his/her life accordingly, granting near immortality to the one who practices it." I am unaware of the veracity of such ritual, but it seems the ritual is a product of Bonifacio's very rich imagination. Cannibalism and the assumption of the traits of the eaten is not entirely a unique concept --- Recently, Fruit Chan's Dumplings (2004) makes use of shredded fetus to maintain youthfulness; Hollywood made use of hoodoo rituals to ensure immortality by transferring souls from one body to another in The Skeleton Key (Iain Softley, 2005).
Bonifacio, instead of burdening his first feature with the need to become a commentary or a philosophy or morality lesson, opts to simplify matters by structuring his film as a horror film or a gory episode from Twilight Zone. The film is not as deep as I would have wanted. Bonifacio seems to have trouble furthering his characters above their basic descriptions. For example, Anton's love for Karissa seems to be more of an afterthought, a plot device. Bonifacio opts to pronounce the relationship in little details and gestures, mostly from the point of view of Anton making Karissa's sudden turnaround as the film's point of view in the latter half a bit emotionally muddled and implausible, more like an unexplained and jarring shift in mode rather than a smooth transition from Anton's unrequited love to Karissa's confusion in romantic attraction. The same can be said with regards to Karissa's hidden longing for Carlos. I am quite unsure whether Karissa is in love with Carlos or merely envious of Portia's traits. The vagueness of the relationships may have worked, but in this feature wherein the strength of one's attraction should equal the moral sacrifices of the ritual, I would have opted for black and white relationships that are more fleshed out.
It's understandable that Bonifacio will stumble in his first feature. He is very young and probably very excited that he decides to pump up the horror factor rather than enriching the characters. What amazes me is how technically exceptional the film is considering its meager budget. It is quite a boon that Bonifacio has gathered formidable performances from Maricel Soriano, Albert Martinez, Ping Medina and Meryl Soriano. Bonifacio uses the digital medium with so much ease. He frames his scenes with purpose, edits his scenes judiciously, that the typical criticisms against digital video seems to be absent from this feature. While Bonifacio may have problems giving weight to his characters and their relationships, he is absolutely brilliant in staging horror scenes. The sound editing, the music, prosthetics, the cinematography; everything meshes wonderfully giving an ominous, almost Lynchian flavor to the narrative.