Sigaw (Yam Laranas, 2004)
English Title: The Echo
Yam Laranas' Sigaw was released during the yearly Metro Manila Film Festival, a two week-long affair wherein all of the country's big studios release their big-budgeted features. The festival that year had a very poor line-up (the three best pictures that year were Joel Lamangan's Mano Po 3: My Love, a tiring continuation of the pint-sized tales of Filipino-Chinese romantics, Cesar Montano's Panaghoy sa Suba (The Call of the River), another sappy tale of patriotism and romance during the Pacific War, and Lamangan's Aishite Imasu (Mahal Kita) 1941 (I Love You 1941), about a transvestite spy falling in love with a Japanese general and a sorry wife who wages her own war against the Japanese invaders. Despite the poor line-up of films, Sigaw didn't get much critical attention aside from a few citations on its production merits. Years later and with much help from Laranas' marketing ingenuity, the film is up for a Hollywood remake (also to be directed by Yaranas) and is now regarded as a classic in the genre.
Does it deserve its current status or is it one of those films whose reputation precedes its actual merits? I'd like to think that it does. Laranas is a gifted cinematographer. I believe he is one of the reason why Raymond Red's Bayani (Heroes, 1992) has that distinct look which turns the film from being simply a film about patriots into an intriguingly surreal version of a well-known portion of Filipino history. His previous films (Balahibong Pusa (Cat Hairs, 2001), Radyo (Radio, 2001), Hibla (Thread, 2002)), not exactly masterpieces in storytelling, are all very alluring to look at. Laranas, who is also cinematographer for Sigaw, feeds the feature with tons of mood and atmosphere; during the first few frames of the film, we are entreated to foreboding views of a concrete building and its interiors tinged with otherworldly hues.
The set-up is excellent, reminiscent of Hideo Nakata's Dark Water (2002) where a decrepit apartment building becomes the fitting setting of a ghost story. In Sigaw, the building is home to a couple, a violent cop (Jomari Yllana) and his pitiful wife (Iza Calzado), and their daughter (Ella Guevara). Their nightly fights and the wife's constant pleas for help disturb Marvin (Richard Gutierrez), a newbie to the building who just acquired his unit for a steal. The story, conceived by Laranas and Roy Iglesias, unfolds succinctly. We first witness one of the couple's more violent episodes. The abusive dialogue, the threats of physical harm accompanied by loud noises of bangings and gunshots are repeated throughout the feature; apart from the conventional shocks and scares (quite effectively done --- Marvin wakes up to blood dripping on his face revealing a bloodied ghost floating above him, or when Marvin and his girlfriend (Angel Locsin) are inside a movie theater and the same ghost starts gliding to them), it is the inauspicious air of domestic violence that makes Sigaw truly terrifying.
Sigaw zeroes in on brutality against women and children, a theme fascinatingly weaved into the film. The repetitiveness, which encompasses both the nightly aural and visual hauntings and the time-enduring manifestations which is against the real and logical assertions of our temporal concept, alludes to the violent act itself. Such brutality is cyclical in its nature. In its most afflictive, its symptoms consist of a vicious circle of physical, mental and emotional violence followed by moments of tenderness, repeated over and over again, trapping the victim perpetually until she tries to escape herself. The ghost story in Sigaw is intertwined with the concept and the effects of such physical and psychological abuse; that these traumatic murders caused by severe beatings and verbal abuse is a logical enough reason to commit the hauntings (mostly the most violent episodes recurring ad infinitum) permanently, at least until a drastic change happens.
This brings me to one of the film's more glaring flaws, the casting of Jomari Yllana as the savage husband. He isn't phsyically apt for the role nor is his acting impressive enough for us to forego his physical deficiencies. Alongside statuesque actress Iza Calzado, he doesn't seem imposing or daunting enough to elicit actual fear. He broods too much and his drunken ruthlessness and brutality is too mannered to be dire. If the role were given to someone more physically terrifying (an ugly, monstrous brute) or someone who can transform tremendously beyond his physical frame (perhaps Ronnie Lazaro, who plays the drunken caretaker of the apartment building), the effect would be much clearer and the distress will be more palpable and believable.
Sigaw is not great horror (although its admittedly a good one), and the fact of its being remade by Hollywood is not reason enough to delegate it the status of a classic. However, it is satisfyingly moody and atmospheric, and beneath all the jumps, scares, and celluloid-committed dread is a convincing subtext. Hopefully, that doesn't get lost in translation.