Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Sa Ilalim ng Cogon (2005)

Sa Ilalim ng Cogon (Rico Maria Ilarde, 2005)
English Title: Beneath the Cogon

Rico Maria Ilarde's Sa Ilalim ng Cogon (Beneath the Cogon) feels like four films feverishly stitched together into one. It starts out as a heist pic. The film's hero ex-soldier Sam (Yul Servo) is the designated driver for the film's initial heist sequence. While his partners in crime are gathering their loot, he waits patiently in the getaway car unaware that his prison pal Pepito (Raul Morit) (frequent flashbacks make us aware that Sam was imprisoned for vagrancy --- the prison pal explains the deficiencies of the law giving way to a possible lifetime in prison) has shot his comrade in greed. The two escape from the crime scene; makes a turn to a deserted road where Pepito tries to shoot him unsuccessfully as Sam's military training gives him the upper edge in gunslinging (Pepito dies; his final words are as empty as his motivations). Sam wanders aimlessly until he reaches an estate (ominously gated with cement gargoyles adorning such to keep out visitors).

Sam takes refuge in the abandoned manor of the estate. The manor by itself looks ordinary; but as Sam explores the interiors of the residence, the place slowly gathers a mysterious atmosphere and a distinct personality. The unkempt swimming pool has gathered several years' crop of dead leaves and has become shelter for toads and other aquatic lifeforms. The master bedroom reveals several pictures that arouse further mysteries and questions; he also uncovers a laboratory wherein forgotten experimentations are kept hidden. He notices mysterious girl Katia (Julia Clarete) drop packages wrapped in banana leaves just outside the fields covered with cogon grass --- doubling the film's already very pregnant premise. While the nightmare-ish storyline of barrio lass-in-distress mixed with science-gone-wrong horror milieu is being developed by Ilarde and co-screenwriter Mammu Chua, the heist/crime angle hasn't been forgotten and is kept breathing for a combo climax that mixes the juggled genres in a not-so-clean completion.

The genre-twisting done by Ilarde is actually a fascinating feat by itself. Ilarde doesn't opt for seamless fusion but instead piles the genre conventions upon each other; experimenting how characters and situations delegated towards specific genres will survive in settings and atmospheres of a botched experiment/horror plot. There's no careful transformation; Sam starts out as misunderstood hero; his entrance to the cogon forested estate doesn't change his status; he is still the loveless ex-soldier who is ready to kick ass but is bared by the arresting charms of Katia (a character who clearly does not belong to the heist); his staying in the haunted estate forces the genre-enclosed villains to invade the horror setting. These uncomfortable genre meetings of these features are exhilarating: muscle-for-hire suddenly makes an appearance after a fairy-tale lovemaking conclusion; Ilarde exercises his action filmmaking muscles; Katia interrupts the sudden savory kung-fu hiccup with a mini-climax of sorts.

Ilarde directs like a mad scientist. Given twelve days of shooting, with an almost non-existent budget, he creates scenes with a seemingly undisciplined abandon and sews them together with perfect timing and editing expertise. The careless direction (just in the first actual scene, a supposed dead security guard suddenly moves), the apt and instructed use of the digital medium, the well-entrenched understanding of genre conventions turn Sa Ilalim ng Cogon into a feature that quietly boggles yet surprisingly entertains. If Ilarde has a directing style that is comparable to the rabid excitement of a mad scientist, then Sa Ilalim ng Cogon may very well be his Frankenstein's monster. You can evidently see the stitches, the hideous imperfections, the bumps and creases of an underperformed surgery and the finished product is as unwieldy as the famed monster. But with all its mistakes and misfires, one can't deny that the film is indeed "alive" as compared to more polished features that scare and shock, but drop dead when the gimmicks have run out.

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