Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Engkwentro (2009)

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.


Northern Portrait said...

This is easily, and by far, the best review on Engkwentro I've read.

It is, well, very humane. Hehe.

Seriously it never overestimates the film based on its potential but it hardly lets its excesses off the hook. Very balanced.

Wish I had written it.

Oggs Cruz said...

Thank you very much for the kind words, northern portrait.

ShatterShards said...

I second Northern Portrait's notion. I, too, have mixed opinions about this movie, but I doubt if I'd be able to render those opinions into something as coherent and lyrical as those that you've written here.

I envy your words, I really do.

Oggs Cruz said...


learn spanish in madrid said...

Hey Cruz !

It's a great review. I haven't seen the movie but it sounds like a good movie with great potential. :)

Great dude and thanks

Praxy said...

And Engkwentro is the only Pinoy film accepted to the Venice Film Festival this year.

Maybe we're just not ready for the film yet...... Whether you liked it or not, after ALL the discussions it has has sparked, Engkwentro does deserve another look.

That is, if you're brave enough to handle it.

I suggest a screening w/ forum with the filmmakers!!

Oggs Cruz said...

Congratulations on being invited to Venice.

I'm not sure about readiness for the film, though. I doubt its readiness that prevents its detractors from completely loving the film. It sparks discussions, not on the basis of its advocacy, but because of its style. And there lies the problem. But yeah, the fact that it polarizes means it is something to acknowledge.

Anonymous said...

been scanning the reviews on engkwentro, and i really don't get why people are so defensive when engkwentro is not praised to the high heavens! some even rant that engkwentro should have won.

engkwentro was, at its best, okay. but it wasn't outstanding. the subject tackled was great, but the film failed (at least for me) in handling such a heavy and controversial topic.

films don't win on the basis of the age of the filmmaker. or whether the filmmaker was brave enough to tackle something controversial (never mind if he/she could handle it well). come on!

Oggs Cruz said...

Because in the Philippines, criticism is taboo. It's true.

Anonymous said...

But obviously, Venice saw something there to put it in its "new trends in cinema" section. Or maybe you know better than the oldest festival in the world?

My take is that for some people it failed because they are looking for the cinema language and grammar that they're accustomed to. It wasn't there.

Maybe they are looking for a three-act plot with character build-up and moments etc. It wasn't there.

Maybe they are looking for clean pans and dolly shots. They weren't there.

If these are your criteria, then of course the film failed! But who's saying that this criteria is standard with wc we judge all films?

Oggs Cruz said...

Quite obviously, Venice saw something, which is good. Hurrah for the Philippine Cinema.

Now, let's not kid ourselves and declare Engkwentro a trailblazing film, because it really isn't trailblazing, either in form, visuals or substance. I commend its risk-taking spirit and its advocacy but that's just about it. Are the criticisms hinged on the fact that it doesn't follow basic cinematic or dramatic codes. I don't believe so (at least for mine or the few that I've read); it hinges on the disconnect between the form and substance that doesn't lie very well to some tastes... and it really just ends with that, a matter of taste. For some, a visual plunge into the depths of poverty where we hear people speaking as if they're trapped in a telenovela is trailblazing, then so be it. It's ridiculous to criticize a film for what it's not, but it's justified to criticize a film for what it is and what it fails to do.

There's no criteria or standard that we should judge films, because criticism is subjective. Take pride that the film caused ripples instead of unanimous praise.

Sprachreisen Australien said...

Cruz ! It sounds like a good movie. I like Thai and Chinese movies and have seen many. I would sure see a Philippines movie.

Oggs Cruz said...

I'm sure this film will get festival mileage, so catch it when it drops by your city.

Digital Impressions said...

I don't think that it will be in reach of me..I am not from phillipines..so..

Jeremy corsi inglese estero

Anonymous said...

Engkwentro just won the Orrizonti Prize. Congratulations!

What "development" the Film Development Council of the Philippines is doing for Philippine Cinema? Should they just content themselves in giving travel arrangements?

Anonymous said...

Another award for Engkwentro from venice: “Luigi De Laurentiis” Award for a Debut Film with a prize of 100,000USD.

Oggs Cruz said...

Congratulations Pepe for the two more accolades to defend your film from its detractors.

Anonymous said...

Oggs, you're Engkwentro's detractor. What can you say about its win? Would you admit this time that your rather lukewarm reception to the movie is... a bit misguided? You're like Ebert when he was actively dissing Kinatay until it won for Mendoza in Cannes. Now it's you. Would you humbly concede that you're wrong, very, very wrong, with your underestimation of Engkwentro? You're like this with Mendoza before. You keep on underestimating Mendoza for a span of time until he reached Cannes and proven you wrong. There was even a time that you praised Raya's film and you panned Mendoza's. Now that he's won a Cannes, you become tame with your attacks. It the same thing with Tribu. You were heatedly arguing against Tribu in Pinoydvd thread and here until it won best film at the Cinemalaya. Then you went like... 'I didn't say it was bad...' Ho-hum.

What you did with Mendoza, you did with Tribu, and now you do with Engkwentro. Come on, would you admit your underestimation is completely wrong?

Oggs Cruz said...

I congratulate the film for its win, but I maintain my position with regards to the film. I don't see the wisdom in changing positions just because a film won a couple of awards in a film festival.

Was I like this with Mendoza? No. I still think Manoro, which is his most undervalued film, is his best. Kinatay, in my opinion, is his best-directed, not because it won a prize but because it's the film where you didn't feel the film being directed by Lao's real time formula but by Mendoza's astute directing. I still think Kaleldo is weak and Tirador as intriguing. I still think Independencia as brilliant, Now Showing as lovely, and Maicling Pelicula as intimate pictures that proclaim the director's woes over history.

My assessment of Tribu is well-pronounced in my writing, if you read it beyond me liking it and disliking it. If you are too lazy to read it again, here's a lowdown: I had mixed reactions --- I admire the use of the freestyle rapping, some of the direction, but disliked heavily how it ended. I maintain my position.

Am I doing it with Engkwentro? No. I still have my problems with the film. Again, if you just read the review, I said that I didn't think its aspirations for the film seemingly shot in one entire shot didn't work because of its problems with the writing, but I admire the use of Celso Ad Castillo as an omnipresent being through his authoritative voice, and think that it's motivations should be noted.

I congratulated the director because he deserves to be congratulated, notwithstanding my protestations... and like what you're precisely doing, you are using the film's wins to defend it from its detractors, one of which is me.

I apologize, the accolades, whether it comes from Venice or from the balut vendor down the corner, cannot and will not sway my opinion. Pepe has funds now to make his next film, and when that film is made and shown, I'll have an independent analysis of it.

edgar p said...

it's pretty tiring to see insecure Filipinos clinging to INTERNATIONAL AWARDS as proof of cinematic perfection. ENGKWENTRO was awarded for its bravery despite its flaws (the judges have already said as much). Diokno was simply brave. it doesn't mean the film is great. nor does it mean Oggs was wrong. it only means Oggs has an OPINION. jeezus christ!

as for the fact that Mendoza, Libiran and Diokno won in the first place, you have to consider that Pinoy squalor cinema is currently a minor FAD in european circles. I have a feeling this year is the peak of that fad. If we continue with poverty porn, that fad will soon die down. Case in point, an article from the Toronto International Film Fest has made brief mention of their reluctance to accept more slum films from Manila.

You need some grounded perspective here.

And on a final note, now that Diokno has won a huge amount, will he use that money to follow up on the advocacy of ENGKWENTRO? will he do something about the killings? or is it yet another prime example of filmmakers exploiting the poor to gain international recognition? because let's face it...the old excuse (Mendoza's favorite) of filmmakers showing social realities doesn't really hold up in the long run, especially when nobody's doing anything about the situation, not the festivals, not the audience, especially NOT the filmmakers. at least, the makers of SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE had a measure of integrity by providing some help to the cast.

and for the record, jim libiran had some integrity.

here's to the death of pinoy indie as the Europeans know it. long live Pinoy Cinema.

Anonymous said...


from that article:
Diokno also met the jury members who “unanimously” awarded him the De Laurentiis—or Lion of the Future—prize, including US filmmaker Antoine Fuqua.

“They told me that they liked the immediacy of the storytelling. They said it wasn’t a perfect film, but that they saw something in it, and they’d like to see what I would do next.”

The jury cited the film for its “bravery.” Diokno recalled, “They said they found a long-distance runner from the Philippines.”

Anonymous said...

The operative word here is unanimous -- the jury members unanimously awarded him the De Laurentiis. If you happen to be among critics, Oggs, it wouldn't have been unanimous, and with your excessive argument against it, you may have swayed other jury members and it may not have won. But it's Venice Film Festival, an institution, and you were not a jury, thanks God!

In your heated defense against Engkwentro you stated: "It sparks discussions, not on the basis of its advocacy, but because of its style. And there lies the problem." Your problem with the style was the filmfest's version of bravery and originality. What's the problem with the film's style if it suggested immediacy? You follow the events leading to an explosive climax with your camera and what you saw was the problematic style and forgot the looming sense of immediacy. You faulted it (the style) because it widened "disconnect between style and substance, where the former seems to overshadow the latter. It's a pity, really. " And who said a film should stay conservative about its style? I don't get your point about the disparity between style and substance in Engkwentro when the style was used as a device to give a sense of urgency, a bomb ticking if you like, because Richard (Felix Roco) needed to leave before it's too late. The flaw with your contention is you wanted Engkwentro to stay conservative in its delivery when the crux of its goal is to break new grounds. You're acting like a child who is afraid to cross the street because a fast-paced vehicle might caught you dead. You prefer to go through overpass because it is safer and you fault those few brave ones who dare to cross the street down there amid the speeding cars. Is it your job to fault them because they are braver? Or is it your fault for staying conservative with your choices?

What I'm saying here is that you may argue against Engkwentro but you won't change the fact that it won in a filmfest institution. If it won, it's the best, period. You can't underestimate it by saying it won because it's brave. Bravery may be the trigger, but it won because it's the best. May be it's time for you to reevaluate your criteria in judging a film. Open -- I mean -- open your eyes.

Oggs Cruz said...

My problem with the style is it didn't work for me. If the Venice jury members unanimously think its brave and worth giving an award to, then that's their call, not mine.

I am not changing the fact that it won in that film festival. That is why I am congratulating the filmmaker for the win, but that doesn't deprive me of airing what I think. It won two prizes in Venice, period. I didn't like it as much as you did, period. I didn't think the urgency that its style egged on did not work, period. If you think it's the best, I will not persuade you to think it's not. I'm glad you loved it so much that you anonymously defend the film, period.

Does Forrest Gump's Best Picture prize in the Oscars make it perfect, same with Braveheart, Driving Miss Daisy, etc. Does Brokeback Mountain's win in Venice make it the best film in the world, I don't think so. These awards are selected by jury members who are independent thinkers, not by some perfect film god who objectively bestows blessings on the deserving. Does Engkwentro's win makes Cinemalaya stupid for not awarding it Best Picture? I don't think so. While there may be questions regarding how the Cinemalaya jury selected their winners, it is still a product of subjectivity.

Ever wonder why these awards require explanation? Because the jury members need to explain why they deemed a film deserving of an accolade. It is because, for them, the film is deserving of the awards. It is most unfortunate for your persistent yet repetitive tirades that we are all human, and thus, we have the freedom to disagree.

Anonymous said...

I saw Pepe's film and honestly it didn't do it for me. I am not a film critic or an authority on the matter and don't claim to be. I'm just a regular Juan de la Cruz who likes watching movies. I totally agree with Oggs' decision to stick to his guns and not change his mind on the film just because it won abroad. Winning things doesn't change a film. It just means that a group of experts say the film rocks. That doesn't mean I have to think a film rocks.

I think the beautiful thing about film as well as democracy is that we are all entitled to our own opinion. We don't need to take the words of the Venice jury as gospel truth. In fact by questioning it and making our own decisions about things we develop our individual tastes.

That said, "Bravo Pepe Diokno for putting Philippine filmmaking on the map again!" I may not like your film too much but I will commend any 22-year old with the courage to make his own film. This time you not only completed your project you brought home accolades from one of the biggest and most revered audience in the world. Just because I didn't like the movie doesn't mean I can't proclaim, "Mabuhay ka Pepe Diokno!"

Me said...

"...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."

OR, it may be due to the specific brand of politics by people like Rodrigo Duterte and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

There's the wide picture, and inside of it are players. You don’t notice the players, you don’t see them. You don’t see the big picture, either, if you do not open your eyes, and notice details such as elements.

And then, there’s this other thing. You're sort of implying films with 'political agendas' have no heart. But here’s the thing : political agendas are built around about AFFECT; about appeal to EMPATHY. They're all about stoking the EMOTION and the consciousness of viewers about issues, regarding the doings of the powerful, and the capacity of their own power, and PROVOKING them enough to get up and do something with it.

Political agendas, as you can see, are ALL about heart. They’re all about feeling.

Now, let’s put that aside for a while. See, what strikes me as particularly odd in this review here is you went out and saw a movie that IS political, that was MEANT to be political, with the director waxing POLITICAL at every opportunity he gets, yet you sort of scoff at it for having a ‘political agenda’. What kind of movie are you watching again ?

Form follows function. If you look past its function, then you can’t properly assess its form. I would figure that when looking at stuff like this, the first thing one addresses would be : does it fulfill it’s agenda, or not ? And to a certain degree, you expound on that. Yet that’s not your main focus now, is it ?

Me said...

I’m not a Pepe Diokno defender, perse, nor do I adhere to awards. I have reservations regarding the work itself, simply ‘coz the whole thing ain’t political ENOUGH. The director stops short of directly castigating guilty parties in real life with this movie; instead, intent on just presenting & depicting condition, and in only nudging the viewers to just intimate on them (which I figure would put his work in the same place as your thinking, but no ). And politics is about engagement. Like I said, it appears as though some of your criticisms have brought this to bear.

I’m a firm believer that a movie should show, not tell; that it must speak for itself, and if people start talking about the camera and not what is being presented, then the film is not getting at the viewer, much less getting its message across.

This varies, of course. Sometimes, the breaking of the fourth wall, the deliberate disorientation of the camera, and editing flow, would disorient the viewers in ways which the film has planned, thereby putting them back to the it’s grasp. An encompassing feeling is effected, a totality of experience, altogether composing that unmistakable wholeness, the greater sum that we would come to know as ‘the movie’. Sam Fuller has his own tics which only works within the structure of his work, and so does Dario Argento, Lino Brocka, and Fernando Poe movies.

That’s the thing with Roger Ebert and others’ criticisms of 'Kinatay' : the fact the entire movie appears to be nothing more than a Filipina getting raped and killed, means it will probably only be seen as that – and all the protestations of ‘larger meaning’ and ‘relevance’ gets immediately shot to hell.

But ‘Engkwentro’ was posting pertinent information at the beginning, and you were practically looking the other way the whole time; seemingly even irked by such a gesture.

Me said...

You have a knack for glossing over the immediate socio-political concerns of a film, especially those which would actively present them; putting all those aside, finding them intrusive, and filtering them from the viewer, as if affectations we could all bother to ignore. Making it look as if these don’t matter much to the larger formation and the construction of the entire work, and shouldn’t figure in one’s assessment of it.

Sure, there IS the ‘how’ as much as the ‘whys’, and ‘wherefores’, and it matters to separately inspect that aspect especially in works w/c aim to present a message : the fact that you haven’t been provoked may indeed be due to Pepe Diokno’s shortcomings as filmmaker.

However, it’s possible that you never really wanted to be provoked to begin with : nitpicking on other matters, while oblivious to the larger act the movie was playing out, and indifferent to its purposes – which happens to be the MEAT of the film, in this case. It's like watching horror movies, and ignoring the scares ( a well-made slasher flick would just be some idiot with a mask standing and walking around with a knife that way).

You may be just eager to write off 'government-sponsored killings' as a managerial lapse, fine. It’s bothersome, Filipinos are just corrupt, and it’s all not a part of your world. What this also means, though, is that you have absolutely no authority to judge ' Engkwentro', especially regarding execution meeting intent. How can you say it ‘fails at what it intends to do’, or words to that effect, when you're not invested to it's intentions to begin with ?

Movies are a medium of communication, and communication goes both ways.

Oggs Cruz said...

Thank you very much M for your well-taken observations,

One thing, I didn't have an idea what Engkwentro was about when I saw it. I am not disputing films with political agendas do not have heart, some do. This one just didn't have enough heart to draw me in. I am not scoffing at the film's political agenda, which I believe is its most potent element, which leaves me a bit confounded because I am sure of myself that there are problems with the film but I cannot just hate it because the film has to be made, not only to point out the excesses of the movers of the killings (Arroyo and Duterte, as you've mentioned) but in its effort to show that these killings happen because there are lives that are disposable (and the life of the two brothers, although compounded with human problems, is because of their extreme poverty, the prime example of disposable humanity). As mentioned in the review, I do not fault the film for what it was trying to do but for how it was trying to do it: which is the so-called brave and fearless cinema as Venice would want to label it.

You say that you are a firm believer that a movie should show, not tell. Engkwentro is in fact showing its political advocacy. It did not need to tell us this through the messages that bookended the film. The film is already confrontational with its medium, putting its audience right in the action, it did not need to shout that it's about the killings in the Philippines. A little bit of mystique and subtlety in a deliberately unsubtle film.

I repeat my conclusion of my review which proclaims my respect for the film despite my reservations on the filmmaking:

"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."

Anonymous said...

It would have been a lot more interesting if I could see the characters faces at least. It was poorly lit and the camera too shaky. Is this supposed to be the future of cinema where we trash production values and use the word "indie" as an excuse? C'mon, i've seen shakier cameras and low-key lighting before even with lower-budget films but still look watchable. The decade is coming to an end and we're still making films that look like they were made 5 years ago. Film is both a visual and narrative medium. You can't sacrifice one for the other and call it 'quality.' If the story is supposed to be good despite the poor visuals, then hand me the script and spare me your movie. If it's the other way around then I'd rather watch a Hollywood fare. If your only defense is because the movie reaped awards, it's really just a trend. Award-giving bodies have been giving awards lately just for encouragement. Kinda like the Nobel Peace Prize.

Anonymous said...

hahaha! i am waiting for the anonymous (before me) to see kinatay he will rant more.

The DVD Thief said...

saw this at UP recently.

I think i get what oggs was trying to say: The film form was okay but the narrative was too thin to be taken seriously. I think the film would be much better if diokno takes his time to focused on rocos's character dilemma of obtaining money for his flight than his rivalry with his brother.