Philippines (84 mi) 2012 d: Ron Morales Official site
Good things come in small packages, which in this case is a spare, modern day, Philippine take, perhaps an homage, to an uncredited Japanese classic, Akira Kurosawa’s HIGH AND LOW (1963), which stars Toshirô Mifune as a wealthy Yokohama businessman in a sharp suit and tie, a film that was itself a modernized update on American pulp writer Ed McBain’s crime novel King Ransom, a hard-boiled 50’s detective thriller that was the 5th book in a lengthy series called 87th Precinct Mysteries, where the child of a wealthy industrialist is kidnapped and held for ransom, only the kidnapper accidentally grabbed the chauffeur’s child by mistake, as the kids were playing together and switched outfits. But the kidnapper is unrelenting and wants the ransom money all the same, becoming something of a morality tale. Kurosawa’s film integrates character study and social commentary into a meticulously taut police procedure, literally dissecting the socio-economic divide in the city, where the Japanese translation of the title is Heaven and Hell, where the most memorable sequences are when he departs from the novel and moves his camera into the streets of the crowded slums, dancehalls, and dope dens, delving into criminal depravity, accompanied by blaring rock ‘n’ roll music and bluesy American jazz, showing a subterranean, nightmarish underworld where the criminal moves about undetected, even with the police planted on every corner. It was a complete departure for Kurosawa and is a brilliant lead-in for this flashy young director to establish his own noirish atmosphere in the backstreets of Manila. Shot by Sung Rae Cho, conveying escalating tensions through the visceral use of a handheld camera, making excellent use of decaying locations which accentuate a vast urban wasteland, Arnold Reyes stars as Marlon Villar, a dutifully obedient chauffeur working for a powerful, but thoroughly despicable boss, Congressman Changho (Menggie Cobarrubias), a man with an uncontrollable desire for underage girl prostitutes, where Marlon has the unsavory job of paying the girls off and driving them home. This is an unflinching look at the seedy underbelly of police-sanctioned, organized crime, where sex trafficking is no different than drug trafficking, as it’s all about controlling the means to make money, with no regard whatsoever for the damage in human consequences.
Marlon has his own 13-year old daughter Elvie (Ella Guevara) and an incapacitated wife in the hospital on an organ transplant waiting list, so he has a mountain of medical expenses that are only compiling, forcing him to endure the indecencies of the job. The Congressman has a spoiled and precocious daughter of his own about the same age, Sophia (Patricia Ona Gayond), often seen getting scolded by the equally pampered and overcontrolling mother (Marife Necesito), who she completely ignores. The two young girls seem to be best friends, one with all the money in the world and the other without, where they play hooky from school one day, only to get an earful from Marlon when he picks them up, as he was inexplicably fired by his boss earlier in the day when the Congressman’s sex crimes are plastered all over the newspaper, so he’s seen by school staff yelling at the girls angrily as he shoves them into his car and speedily drives off, only to be stopped by a motorcycle cop who’s suddenly interested in kidnapping the Congressman’s daughter. When one of the girls protests, she’s immediately shot by one of the two kidnappers, swiping the other girl, threatening to kill her unless Marlon can persuade his boss to pay a hefty ransom, before then knocking him out. When he awakes, Sophia is dead in the backseat and his daughter is gone. Not knowing what to do or who to turn to, Marlon’s head is spinning out of control, completely helpless to the evolving circumstances. Bad only gets worse as he’s lured into the humiliating position of being dictated cellphone orders by the kidnappers, who aren’t shy about using the screaming cries of his daughter as an incentive. Desperate to get his boss to pay the ransom, Marlon tells the investigative team of cops that they took both girls. Despite his cooperation, they beat and brutalize him anyway, as he remains a key suspect in their eyes, as it’s not uncommon for lowly paid employees to turn against wealthy employers, especially after being fired earlier, giving him a motive. Despite intentionally leaving out pertinent details, Marlon holds up under duress, knowing his best chance to get his daughter back is working with the kidnappers, where they lead him around like a puppet on a string, which only pisses off the cops even more.
Like the Kurosawa film, one of the things this film highlights are the extreme contrasts between the moral decadence of wealth, where spreading money around offers a powerful and seemingly invincible feeling that you can get away with anything, compared to the utter devastation of the impoverished underclass, where you have fewer and fewer choices, becoming totally dependent on others to provide what you need, sinking into a huge pit of despair when there’s no one to help, expressed through the desperate feeling of near death patients whose only chance for survival is an organ donor. To see Marlon led through the dirt and grime of his employer’s filthy habits, all sanctioned by hefty payoffs, it’s easy to lose one’s bearings in this nightmarishly disturbing world of extreme corruption. His helplessness only increases when he becomes a willing participant in the kidnapping plot to extort money, as he’ll do anything to keep his daughter alive, so once again he dutifully follows orders. While the constant cellphone instructions become irritating after awhile, matched by a tiresome, one-dimensional portrayal of corrupt cops, it becomes increasingly clear, however, through the use of some interesting flashback sequences, that the kidnappers have more on their minds than money, where it becomes personal. One of the most haunting images of the film is seeing how a 13-year old prostitute nonchalantly goes about her business, where her life is already stripped of that childhood playfulness and enthusiasm seen earlier in Elvie and Sophia, where this becomes an excruciating portrait of poverty, both economically and spiritually, as she’s literally sapped of any inner spirit. This barren wasteland is also shown in the garbage-strewn landfill where the kidnappers lead their victims, forcing them to tread on contaminated ground. Reyes’s gutty performance throughout, however, is the key to the film, offering a sweaty image of weariness and fatigue, continually trapped in a hellish underground of human anguish and impending doom, where the rules of the game are constantly changing, inventing new barriers to overcome, where lies are the only constant. How does anyone survive in this brutal game of ever shifting power and corruption? In Marlon’s mind, it’s all a continuous blur, a horrific expression of the effects of poverty, where the bosses may come and go, but the helpless subservience remains the same.