Pa-Siyam (Erik Matti, 2004)
Ever since Chito Roño's Feng Shui (2004) made a killing at the local box office (an obvious aftershock of the successes of Hideo Nakata's Ringu (1998) and Takashi Shimizu's Ju-On (2000) which were adored by Filipino filmgoers), big studios started riding the wave, coming up with their own crafty variations of long-haired creeps with gait problems haunting innocent victims wherever they go. Most of the J-horror rip-offs are uninspired, inexpensive excuses to launch the careers of love teams and teenage idols. Clearly, the wave has blurred what a horror film should be, that instead of damaging the implied safety the audience has with real life (like most of Kiyoshi Kurosawa's films, leaving his audience with a prolonged dread by questioning the very fibers that make us human, something which we cannot easily shrug off), these so-called directors delegate the duty of scaring to cheap shocks, computer effects and jarring sounds.
Erik Matti's Pa-Siyam, one of the few recent Filipino horror films that actually surpassed my expectations, was released without much fanfare. This was expected. There were no popular celebrities attached to the feature. Roderick Paulate, an actor who at the prime of his career portrayed stereotypical loud gay characters (including one who transformed into a horse as a curse) in slapstick comedies, plays the eldest of five siblings who reunite in their parents' mansion for their mother's pa-siyam, a Catholic ritual wherein the loved ones of the deceased would pray daily novenas for the deceased's soul for nine days. The other siblings are played by Cherry Pie Picache (as the second eldest sister who brought with her her own daughter (played by Cristine Reyes)), Maricar de Mesa (as the beautiful and successful sister), Yul Servo (as the happy-go-lucky brother who has a torrid affair with the caretakers' daughter (played by Ana Capri)), and Aubrey Miles (as the mentally retarded youngest sister).
They are all terrific, especially Paulate who sheds the effeminate voice and the females' clothes, which made him popular, to portray a man who is overworked abroad but returns nonetheless to the former family dwelling to battle his personal demons and harbored ill feelings against his mother. Aside from the persistent hauntings (waking up to a roomful of feces, bugs and cockroaches, or being followed by the spectre of their dead mother occupying every nook and corner of the darkly lit house), each of the siblings relive an unfortunate memory within the house, all concerning a portion of their lives being permanently scarred by their mother's intervention. Their reunion isn't a happy one. After niceties and gifts have been exchanged, they drag themselves back to their duty to respect their mother for the final nine days her soul is supposedly still in Earth.
The affair is bleak and dreadful. Matti capitalizes on that atmosphere, at most embellishing the scenes with ambient sounds (of crickets or lizards at night, of the nagging humming of the foreboding lullaby of their mother) or the very low-key yet ominous score of Von de Guzman (who transforms from low-key to orchestral, particularly in the scene wherein the spirit expert reveals to the siblings the torment suffered by their mother, to choral in the film's subdued conclusion). It's very effective. J. A. Tadena's cinematography, using high definition digital video to create a rustic and chilling overview of the barely lit interiors of the house, Richard Somes' detailed production design and De Guzman's music fathom the vision Matti and screenwriter Dwight Gaston had in mind --- to build up the horror not to extreme lengths, but just enough to keep one at a guessing and uncomfortable edge.
What is Pa-siyam all about? What makes it a particularly good Filipino horror film? True, it is well-made and it is very evident that Matti had variable control over the filmmaking, as can be observed by the very consistent tone and vision in the film. Yet, there seems to be no underlying value in the story of siblings reuniting for their mother's death and the concept of a ghost begging for vengeance for her sons and daughters who abandoned her is not exactly unique (almost all ghost stories, not necessarily filmed ones, forward the issue of a wronged soul clamoring for some sore of justice).
What shook me is the way Matti and Gaston shifted the attention from vengeance to guilt, which is the point of every castigation --- to instill into a person an acknowledgment of guilt for a collective sin. The siblings arrive at the house, brandishing their stories of their respective responsibilities (how they work hard to send money for the education of their youngest sibling, or how one tries to keep her finances apt for that sibling's needs; one of the siblings even manages to appear righteous when his girlfriend mysteriously dies), unfettered by the possible and probable sufferings their mother experienced during her last days. They re-enter the mansion guilt-free and heroes and throughout the nine days of prayers, their mother force upon them (like most mothers do) a bit of a reality check, that despite their hard experiences growing up and their respective successes and virtues, they have committed a wrongdoing. The hauntings continue to intensify up to the ninth day, and the siblings still have no clue as to the reasons for their mother's wrath.
They end up permanently scarred as their mother's retribution is more painful than individually hurting them (like how she used to when she was younger and alive); she removes from them the duty of bringing up their retarded sister they might mess up the way they did with her (especially upon the knowledge they gathered linking her to their trusted parish priest (played by Jaime Fabregas)). It is the siblings' capacity for callousness (when the mother was both living and dead) that is punished, that inherent trait of balancing responsibilities and rewards (since they suffered an unhappy childhood, they are free from their mother's clutches), forgetful of the permanent familial bonds that tie us (delegating these duties to servants whose bonds with their ward is as flimsy as the amount of money being sent to them). Matti and his creative team has successfully made me mindful of that (without much blood, pyrotechnics or shocks) making Pa-Siyam one truly satisfying horror film.