Saturday, April 19, 2014

Bang Bang Alley (2014)

Ely Buendia, King Palisoc & Yan Yuzon's Bang Bang Alley: Violence as a 3-Course Meal

A world-weary bodyguard, played wondrously by Jimmy Santos who returns to his actioner roots, takes a well-deserved reprieve from work by spending his night singing songs from his youth in a karaoke bar with his chosen paid companion. He snaps out of his pleasant reminiscence when he hears a familiar voice singing a familiar tune from another room.

He then recounts the significance of both the song and the voice. Director Ely Buendia, by utilizing extreme close-ups and, amplifies the maddening claustrophobia, turning the bodyguard’s story into something perverse, something that telegraphs the episode’s bloody outcome. After his monologue, the bodyguard proceeds to the other room and shoots the singer with all the conviction of a man consumed by vengeance.

And so begins Bang Bang Alley, a triptych of tales that explore violence within a distinctly Filipino setting where the government is shaded in grey, the police are vulnerable to corruption, and everybody else is just waiting for that one push to explode in fits of base brutality. Buendia’s appetizer efficiently sets the tone of gloom and unpredictability that shrouds the three episodes.

Yan Yuzon’s Aso’t Pusa’t Daga opens with the lone witness of a politically-motivated massacre, played with admirable conviction by Bela Padilla, having a casual conversation with the cop assigned to keep her safe, played by Yuzon. From exploring the meandering intimacy of two individuals trapped inside a safe house, the short morphs into a disturbing probe of the ill mechanics of Philippine provincial politics.

The episode eerily echoes real events, blurring the line between Yuzon’s pulpy machinations and his very pessimistic outlook of very current events. There are no blacks and whites with the characters he conjures. Even the seemingly sinister hitman played by Art Acuna tempers his turpitude. All of the players in the grandiose stage that is Philippine politics are all morally ambiguous souls swimming in a culture of getting ahead and getting even, no matter the consequences.

King Palisoc’s Makina takes Bang Bang Alley back into the arena of the ordinary and familiar. Emman, played by Gabe Mercado in what seems to be the performance of his career as a character actor, is driver for a home-service massage business. He leads a morose life. He wakes up early to buy bread from the nearby store where the neighborhood bully who he suspects is shagging his wife is all too ready to humiliate him. At work, he has to struggle the constant nagging of his loudmouth boss.

It is therefore not surprising that when he involuntarily commits a violent act, he becomes a ticking time bomb waiting for the right moment to explode. Palisoc and screenwriter Zig Marasigan has created a setting that delivers no reprieve for the working man, with other people’s problems infesting the radio waves and the simple act of relating to other people is a difficult chore. Although the streets are empty and a stress-relieving massage is just a call away, all the elements that would awaken the beast out of the most docile of men are all apparent and abundant.

Makina is quite a feat of visual and aural design melding to turn sleepless Metro Manila into a pressure cooker for its citizens on the edge. Violence is not a depravity reserved for those with the resources to be evil. It’s innate in humanity.

While Buendia managed to control both style and substance in the prelude he directed, his Pusakal, the third and final episode of Bang Bang Alley, leaves a lot to be desired. A high society girl played by a rather unconvincing Megan Young has retreated to the mountains to stay with her aunt after killing a boisterous rich kid who left her sister bruised and beaten. Despite the outward serenity of the place, she becomes witness to a decades-long battle between her aunt and certain operatives who want the land for themselves.

The premise itself shows promise. Buendia manages to communicate the extent of violence, how it is not limited by time or place. Unfortunately, Buendia executes the concept without restraint or finesse. The scoring of the episode gives too much away. Moreover, he utilizes voice-overs perhaps to add a noir-ish effect to his episode. Sadly, those voice-overs only betray what little atmosphere and subtlety he can conjure from stuffing the short with too much technique.

In the end, Bang Bang Alley, as a collection of tales that navigate the concept of violence within a specific local context, is mostly successful. There’s a variety in insight in the three episodes that eventually cohere to create a damning and cynical portrait of society.

As a showcase of new filmmaking talent, it is predictably a mixed bad. Yuzon astounds mostly because of his ability to frankly communicate his suspicious outlook of Philippine politics. Palisoc impresses with his ability to tell the deviously common tale of a man succumbing to his inner demons with a lot of clever sophistication. Buendia is sadly the odd man out. The promise he shows in the film’s prelude is left in shambles with an episode that is dwarfed by the fine works of his colleagues.

(First published in Rappler.)

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