Public Relations, by David Bax
Multiple reviews of Ron Morales’ Graceland have made jokes the gists of which are that the film probably doesn’t have many fans among the Philippines tourism board. While it’s true that this nasty, lo-fi movie – part thriller, part miserablist drama – has plenty to say about the dangers that flourish in the precipitously functional country, its deeper concerns, about the evils of which humans are capable and the different things that drive us to them, are universal.
Arnold Reyes plays Marlon Villar, who works as a driver for the affluent family of Manuel Changho (Menggie Cobarrubias), a local politician. He has been employed by the Changhos for more than a decade and would seem to have earned some measure of trust, given that we first meet him while he is driving home a suspiciously young-looking girl who, it is strongly implied, has been engaged in sexual activity with Mr. Changho. That trust dissipates immediately, though, when news of the politician’s proclivities becomes public and Marlon is hastily fired. On his last day of work, he is escorting Changho’s daughter home from school with his own daughter in tow when he falls victim to a kidnapping scheme. The rest of the film follows him as he tries to get his child back while battling the suspicions of Changho and the police that he was involved in the plot to begin with.
Morales and cinematographer Sung Rae Cho photograph the action in a sloppy and energetic handheld style. The film’s color palette is similarly unadorned, with lots of dim fluorescents and overcast natural lighting. Truthfully, the aesthetic likely follows the budget but at times it lends a perfect urgency. In particular, the kidnapping itself happens in such an improvised, jittery fashion that we, just like Marlon, don’t quite realize how sickeningly it’s gone wrong until it’s over. Yet, at other times, the film simply looks cheap.
Performances are also hit and miss. Reyes is superbly naturalistic, displaying the frayed wits of a man trying to save his daughter but also the everyday nervousness of a person whose economic status makes him perpetually vulnerable. As the lead detective, Dido de la Paz is enjoyably charismatic, clearly having fun playing with the audience’s sympathies. Sadly, the young actors portraying the girls are less than camera-ready and the head kidnapper spits and growls perfunctorily.
What holds the attention and what lingers after the film has ended is the point of view, simultaneously humanist and pessimistic, held by Morales (who also wrote the screenplay). He sympathizes with each of his characters even as he insists that any of them is capable of hurting, exploiting and destroying others. It’s the reasons for such cruelty that interest him. Be it power, money, lack of money, familial protectiveness, vengeance or any other impetus, he lets us know that something can drive anyone toward evil.
Morales’ setting – and this is where the tourism board’s disdain comes in – is a petri dish for these themes. A country as historically unstable as the Philippines, with a wide financial gulf between those who have and those who don’t, can become a sad study in what awful things can be done by those with too many options and those with none at all.