Being Filipino-born (though an American citizen), I can tell you that I haven’t been impressed with Philippine cinema. Most of them are over-bearing dramas, sex-driven comedies and melodrama, action movies and silly films but there are some that manage to stand from the flock. Writer/director Ron Morales’ “Graceland” is one such film. It brings forth a very harsh reality and several touchy subjects in the Philippines; corruption, poverty and child prostitution. It is not the kind of film set to entertain, but rather to tell a harsh reality which can make the most experienced movie watcher a little uncomfortable.
Family man Marlon Villar (Arnold Ramos) is a driver for congressman Manuel Changho (Menggie Cabarrubias) who spends his days driving him around and doing errands for him…whether it tests his own moral stance or not. One fateful day comes forth, and as he was about to pick up his boss’s daughter Sophia (Patricia Gayod) along with his own daughter, Elvie (Ella Guesvara), Marlon’s life is changed forever when a kidnpapping goes horribly wrong and his own daughter is kidnapped by a couple of men, one of them is Visel (Leon Miguel) who later proceeds to give Marlon some instructions. Marlon is caught and he has to obey if he wants to see his daughter alive again. The Changho family enlist the services of a police detective, named Ramos (Dido Dela Paz) who has his own suspicions about what had really happened. Can Marlon save his daughter?
“Graceland” somehow reminded me of Akira Kurosawa’s “High and Low”, but here, the writing just barely scratches its more original concept. Most of what goes on in its screenplay is seen from Marlon’s viewpoint, as the direction generates tension and even some foreshadowing, it defines the stakes by making his viewers ask a few questions. What would you do in such a situation? How would you react? Do you think Marlon is correct with his decisions? The screenplay jumps right to what mattered in the screenplay. After it gives us a glimpse to Marlon’s relationship to the Changhos, and how deep of a friendship has been shared between Elvie and Sophia, the building scandal about the congressman, the viewer sees everything from the driver’s point of view as the protagonist is caught in a web of lies that make him question just who he really is and the more he tries to dig himself out, the more he becomes buried. It is easy for the viewer to root for Marlon, as he tries to rescue and bargain for his daughter.
After the small groundwork is set and the core premise established, the film goes into several subplots. Manuel Changho’s nature will no doubt make many viewers uncomfortable. There are several scenes of full frontal nudity that made me want to pull away, as they were portrayed in the manner that made me uncomfortable. I know it is a harsh truth, but it tested what I could take from cinema. There were scenes which were just disgusting. There is also a subplot regarding the kidnappers, as their motivations weren’t as simple as ransom money. The central characters in the film were all people who go around a gray area, and none of them were really good or evil (save for Changho who leans towards his vanity and twisted desires). They seem to do a certain thing right, only to have a hidden dirty secret behind them. My only complaint was that, as far as Ron Morales wanted to push the envelope, he didn’t push too far. Hints of the sequences only serve to leave the viewers a sour taste and will make them want to see more. I do have to say that the script wasn’t as smooth as it should’ve been, and it would benefited if it was longer. There were some noticeable plot holes that sort of bothered me (nope not the cell phones), but they weren’t enough to hurt my enjoyment of the movie. For one who understands this language, I found that the English subtitles also proved to be better than the actual Filipino dialogue, as the subs proved much stronger in delivering tension when it counted.
The screenplay puts in a lot of time for the viewer to start ‘liking’ Marlon. It was a good way for the viewer to be invested, just so the direction could hit them on the head with more pieces of the tragic story. I am not sure, I figured it out as soon as I saw Ramos started to question Marlon, but still, the film was able to generate a good amount of tension to keep me interested. There is a lot of emotion in the sequences, and the screenplay isn’t too shy about showing this very real nature of life in the Philippines. This is just something that can make someone ponder what he has seen. Corruption and immoral behavior rarely gets punished in this country. It is all about who you know, and how much money you have. This is a country whose past president had admitted to cheating, and yet, she was able to hold power after all. The film does have some strong messages about ‘karma’ and sometimes, that sense of justice may be enough for its people?
The performances were strong in the film. Arnold Ramos gives a heartbreaking performance that made the film more powerful that it should have been. His character was a tragic figure which made the film closer to reality and it was so easy to root for him. Menggie Cabarrubias was solid as the corrupt congressman. He was very believable, and he set the pace for its more ‘karmic’ undertones. The way Dido De la Paz portrayed his aggressive nature as Detective Ramos should’ve been a lot more rougher, while I liked the way he was portrayed, Ron Morales just kept it a little safe. Ella Guevara did an incredible job as Elivie Villar. Despite her limited screen time, she was able to deliver the correct emotions in each scene. Hers was an innocence that has been tainted, and yet she manages to stay true to what she grasps as ‘moral’.
Being a low-budget film, Morales did not do anything too snazzy with the camerawork and there really is very little gunfire to be seen in the movie. He keeps the film simple and does not use any bright colors. Even the colors in the red light district stayed muted to communicate its gloomy and hopeless themes. Things mostly stay within Marlon’s point of view, and this was how Morales generated intensity and suspense.
In a world as we have seen in “Graceland”, just what should one do with faced with such a situation? A corrupt world in a corrupt society, Ron Morales brings a world full of corrupt characters, and people just do what they need to do to survive. Who can one turn to? The main premise does remind one of “High and Low” but this is not a copy by any means. The subplots in the film made for a very heartbreaking experience, but unfortunately, the writing did not go that far to bring them into full exposition. There was something missing, and this keeps “Graceland” from becoming a masterpiece. Still, it is a very good film worth a look, but due to its disturbing nature, I wouldn’t be too keen about watching it again and again. Recommended. [3 ½ Out of 5 Stars]