Ligalig (Cesar Montano, 2006)
English Title: Anxiety
With four features under his belt (three of which are action films, one a historical drama), one would think Cesar Montano would've matured as a director. He probably did, his last film Panaghoy sa Suba (The Call of the River, 2004) showed some initial promise before it devolved into an undefinable mess. Ligalig (Anxiety) is a decent suspense thriller that became utterly unrecognizable after all the gimmicks and techniques that Montano the director just had to show off. The gimmicks weren't very original either --- the screen starting to buzz and jiggle was most probably taken out from Saw (James Wan, 2004), the blue screen car sequences have been used in early Hollywood features when location shooting wasn't a viable measure, but the gimmick must've been taken out from Roberto Rodriguez's Sin City (2005).
Gimmickry I can generally handle --- there are films I love that make use of style to emphasize substance: Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream (2000), Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill, and in the local front, there's Quark Henares' Keka (2003) and Richard Somes' Ang Lihim ng San Joaquin (his Shake, Rattle and Roll 2k5 episode), among others. One requirement for me to tolerate technical gimmickry is that the gimmicks should always enunciate or put emphasis on a narrative element, or a feeling or emotion in the film. Montano's use of these technical gimmickry is indeliberate and way too excessive; and not even very meticulously crafted. No matter how much you squeeze your imaginative brain, there is no practical way to explain why the camera has to move (on cue, at that) during conversations inside the cab --- except of course to detail the green screen technology that was used for the scenes. There is also no practical explanation for sudden camera jiggles, the incompetent camera movements and showy camera angles, the frequent zooms (which merely emphasize the artificiality of the production; you can observe each and every inch of foundation powder in the actresses' face). There is just no rationality behind the use of special effects, except of course, to squander away precious production money.
Take away all the sugar coating and the insane amount of fat, and the story is quite simple: A taxi driver Junior (Cesar Montano) is finally invited to the house of his girlfriend (Sunshine Cruz) to meet with her mother (Celia Rodriguez) and her siblings (Rebecca Lusterio, as the adopted lass; John Regala, as the shell-shocked ex-marine who collects firearms as a hobby). Simultaneously, prostitutes are being murdered by a mysterious killer (Johnny Delgado). The story was conceptualized by Montano, which was finalized into a screenplay by him and Willy Laconsay (his creds are mostly action films).
Shades of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (the only difference is that Ligalig establishes a patriarchal control and influence) and the much more recent Frailty (2001), by also actor-turned-director Bill Paxton, among other numerous Hollywood pics, pervade the film. No matter how much insistence Montano makes for the importance of his twist ending, there is no way you wouldn't be able to discover the twist within after a few minutes of Montano's obviousness and rather clumsy and blunt writing. Montano prides of the film's chances of garnering a Hollywood remake --- seriously though, what's the difference? There's not much originality in the original film that is being groomed for a Hollywood remake.
It all boils down to Montano trying too hard to impress; and his means of impressing the public is very pedestrian --- by covering up his narrative shortcomings with gimmickry and twist endings. That's something he really doesn't need to do; portions of the film, after much digging through the piles and piles of directorial excesses, are quite good. Take for example the entire sequence wherein the murderer starts to kill the family members one by one --- it's a very gruesome affair that actually had some bite and balls in the filmmaking. The entire sequence was authentically gripping and suspenseful. It certainly helps that Montano was privileged enough to employ brilliant thesps: Regala's shell-shocked ex-marine was an interesting diversion, so is Bayani Agbayani's surprisingly subtle comedy; Delgado was a dominating presence (although there's a bit too much Jack Nicholson-emulation in there); much more enjoyable was Rodriguez's turn from sharp-edged matriarch to resisting victim of violence.
At the center of the film is Montano, of course. He after all directed, conceived, co-written, starred and produced the feature. According to interviews, this film is his dream project --- there is simply no way Montano can shove himself into the project any less than it is now. Normally, Ligalig is something I won't spend a buck for, but in a film festival that is turning out to be the weakest in its years of existence, one has to admire Montano's ability to withhold his artistic tendencies (which encompasses the violent and nature of the film) when every other studio and director have folded in this game of commercialism and profit.