Desperate measures (A review of Aswang)

Mother Lily hired Jerrold Tarog to direct a full-length horror film based on the strength of his excellent Shake Rattle and Roll episode, Punerarya. Unfortunately, he fails to deliver the goods. His remake of Peque Gallaga’s Aswang is not scary enough for a horror film, not romantic enough for a love story, and too ineptly directed it makes you doubt the talent he has shown in his past work.

The plot is so convoluted that there’s really no recourse but to extend it to a sequel in the hope that everything will eventually fall into place. Daniel (Paulo Avelino) is a member of an assassin group. The group’s most recent targets are the parents of Gabriel (Albie Casiño) and Ahnya (Jillian Ward), who eventually escape during the murder of their parents. Daniel and the other assassins, played by Marc Abaya and Niña Jose, hunt the kids down a rural village, where, inexplicably, people are still residing in even though they get massacred by abwaks every summer. As one villager put it, “Tinitiis na lang namin.” (?!?!?!?!?!) Apparently, the concept of migration is still alien to them.

Abwaks are zombie-like creatures who prey on humans. They’re comfortable on land (they can disguise themselves as humans), underground (they stalk their prey by burrowing themselves on the ground like aardvarks), on air (they can transform into big crow-like birds), and, apparently, also on water (one abwak attacked a main character while he was bathing in the lake).

In the village, the kids are protected from abwaks by Jasmin (Lovi Poe), a mysterious lady who walks around the village in a gossamer white dress and who always speaks in a disinterested monotone as if she has serious problems she doesn’t want to talk about (as all mysterious ladies do). When Daniel et al.  arrive in the village, he fell in love with Jasmin at first sight and follows her wherever she goes as if he was a dog and she a bitch in heat.

We later learn that Jasmin is an abwak herself living in the Plantation with a coven of abwaks headed by Ipo Moises (Bembol Roco). She is betrothed to Ipo Moises and the wedding will happen soon. But first, she must protect the kids from the assassins! We don’t know why she’s such a good-hearted abwak. This is where the movie began to go haywire. Everything is now a blur to me: Casiño and Ward trying to act scared throughout their ordeal but only ending up looking like they’re playing hide and seek with the monsters, Abaya piling on the ham scene after scene, the reinforcement of bad guys going all 80s action movie on the abwaks, Jasmin telling Daniel, “Di ko kaya, di ko kaya,” but does it anyway (and so soon at that!), the girl getting swallowed by the earth in one scene, and in the next scene she’s still very much alive with not a hint of soil on her clothes. I like one scene, though: the wedding scene. The dancing abwaks with the palm fronds was so much fun to watch I wish Tarog gave them more screen time instead of the ratratan scenes which are very boring.

In the race to keep the film under two hours, many scenes are left hanging in the air to keep the plot moving forward. The Plantation abwaks are actually an interesting group and the movie could have been more exciting if it focused on the internal dynamics of the coven. For instance, Jasmin and her sister were adolescents when they killed a character early in the film. But that character’s spouse now looks like they’re in their 70s. Does that mean that abwaks age slower than humans? What power does Jasmin possess that Ipo Moises is desperate to acquire? Is there a criteria for becoming an abwak versus becoming just another prey that will end up in the dungeons? I guess all these questions will be answered in the planned sequel. But not knowing the answers now detract the viewers from fully appreciating the story.

I heard that when Mother Lily saw the final cut of the movie, she was unimpressed. I mean, who wouldn’t be? But her last-ditch effort to rescue the film by adding a sex scene actually made the whole thing look desperate. That dream sequence was so laughably un-erotic I imagined it was Mother Lily herself who directed it. Remember that love scene between Sam Worthington’s and Zoe Saldana’s avatars in, uhm, Avatar? It was so much sexier and much more believable, considering they were CGI! I mention that film because it has parallels with Aswang: a human male falling in love with a not-so-human female. The falling in love part is a crucial point because the audience has to believe that there really was a meeting of souls, so to speak, which goes beyond mere physical attraction. That’s why the Twilight series has been successful because the love between Bella and Edward is so palpable, thus, relatable. Not so much between Jasmin and Daniel.

With Confessional, Tarog announced his presence in the Pinoy film world. He followed it up with Mangatyanan, Senior Year, and Punerarya. With that short filmography, there’s no denying that he is one of the smartest and most creative filmmakers in the industry. But his first full-length mainstream work proved that he’s not very comfortable working in the mainstream industry (at least not yet), and his deficiencies as a filmmaker were exposed. What made Confessional and Senior Year so enjoyable to watch was the organic feel those films had. They were a breath of fresh air. He didn’t have to compromise between his art and a need to satisfy the demands of the market. For Aswang 2, I hope he grows some balls and tell Mother Lily to take it or leave it. If gets fired for it, he can always go back to indie films.

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3 thoughts on “Desperate measures (A review of Aswang)

  1. Pingback: Aswang « Pinoy Rebyu

  2. I wish growing so-called balls and telling producers to suck it is as easy as writing a review telling me to do so. It’s so gung-ho to not care about being fired but that stuff only happens in the movies, im afraid. It’s quite a naive sentiment. We do our best but, in mainstream filmmaking, it’s the system that defines the film.

  3. I enjoyed some parts of the movie though. I think Lovi Poe is one heck of an artist. There are some parts indeed that will need some elaboration. 😉 And yes, creating a film is way more difficult than writing a review.

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