Engkwentro (Pepe Diokno, 2009)
English Title: Clash
That Jim Libiran makes an appearance as a hitman in the latter portion of Pepe Diokno's Engkwentro (Clash), further reinforces the nagging feeling that Diokno's film is an unnecessary revisit to the themes fluently tackled by Libiran in Tribu (Tribe, 2007), his acclaimed film about rapping gangsters in Tondo, a depressed Manila district. The similarities are uncanny: urban squalor, domestic quarrels, an antagonistic attitude towards authority, a climactic square off between two rival gangs, the overall pessimistic atmosphere that pervades the pictures. However, there are marked differences between the two films. Where Tribu has a heart and a soul (the best portions of the film are when the gangsters rap their hearts out), Engkwentro has a political agenda (even before the film starts, the audience is already barraged with information about state-sponsored killings in the South). Where Tribu makes use of Tondo and its residents to tell his story (with O.G. Sacred revealing himself as a very able performer), Engkwentro makes use of a set constructed in the outskirts of the metropolis, and actors to pass off as slum dwellers.
Perhaps the most glaring difference is style. While Libiran sometimes indulges in long takes (there's a particularly lovely scene where Libiran's camera follows a utilities man who is mobbed by Tondo residents who are complaining about their electricity bills), Diokno attempts to tell his story in one long take. He failed at that attempt but achieves something close. Engkwentro is composed of a couple of takes, seemingly seamlessly edited together by Miko Araneta. Diokno's camera is constantly in motion: candidly shaking as it treads the labyrinthine passageways of his makeshift slums; following the characters as they hatch their plans, negotiate, orate and fight; and document the goings-on with the efficiency of an inconspicuous voyeur.
Authenticity becomes the problem that Diokno has to grapple with. By filming Engkwentro the way he did, Diokno forces upon his audience an expectation of realism. The film's documentary-like style (real-time, if you want to be more accurate about parlance), where the camera, like a predator searching for its prey, pounces on private conversations or hidden dealings, is more distracting than pertinent, emphasizing not the urgency or gravity of the situation but the widening disconnect between style and substance, where the former seems to overshadow the latter. It's a pity, really. Diokno's message is something that is required to be said clearly. Draped in a Cain and Abel narrative that focuses on Richard (Felix Roco), leader of the Bagong Buwan gang who is being hunted by city-sponsored hitmen and is planning to run off to Manila with his girlfriend Jenny-Jane (Eda Nolan), and his brother Raymond (Daniel Medrana), a new initiate of Bagong Buwan's rival gang called Batang Dilim who is tasked by his superior (Zyrus Desamparado) to kill his brother, Engkwentro focuses on these slum dwellers' petty affairs to show the absurdity of the bigger picture.
Mayor Suarez, an omnipresent voice (of director Celso Ad Castillo) that haunts the slums with repetitive denials of vigilantism yet proud announcements of his accomplishments, is the nagging representation of the bigger picture, that they are under constant threat of extermination, not because of their felonies (bag-snatching, theft, and small-time drug-peddling: all of which are annoyances rather than threats to national security) but because they are disposable. That the mayor remains unseen throughout the picture enlarges both his authoritarian, if not fascistic, grip over the city and the absurdity of such immense influence despite his absolute physical absence and the ignorance of reality precisely because of his absence. It is this inspired layering that prevents me from dismissing Engkwentro as just another third-world film, peddling our nation's poverty for perceived art.
Its grimy surface, its attention-grabbing realist style, and Diokno's overwrought screenplay function to provide a human element. No matter how suffocating these slum dwellers' stories of survival can be, they provide ample framework for Diokno's agenda. The disembodied authoritarian voice of Mayor Suarez gets louder as the narrative nears its climax. The film then erupts into a cacophony. This is Diokno's edgy protest against these government-sponsored killings, a practice that can be best described as an alarming offshoot of an unjust and inhumane system that has nurtured crooks and criminals (only to dispose of them like unnecessary garbage). I may not find Engkwentro completely effective, but there is nothing stopping me from respecting Diokno's visual and noise barrage and allowing it to gain its rightful momentum.