A Short History of a Few Bad Things: Short on Stakes, Long on Quirks
Keith Deligero’s A Short History of a Few Bad Things follows the efforts of police detective Felix Tangoroy (Victor Neri) to solve the puzzling serial murders of his army buddies residing in Cebu City. Assisted by Jay Gonzaga (Jay Mendoza), a chirpy sidekick and foil to Tangoroy’s brooding persona, Tangoroy chases seemingly credible leads which are occasionally shot down by Chief Ouano (Publio Briones III), his play-by-the-rulebook stickler of a boss. Undeterred by his superior’s stinging comments, Tangoroy pursues his hunches only to end up as the target of his own inquiry. At the film’s closing sequence, Tangoroy comes to terms with the fatal hubris of his past and accepts the unpredictable retribution.
Deligero’s foray into the detective thriller film genre accompanied by Paul Grant’s elliptical screenplay is a welcome addition to an underdeveloped and sorely neglected section of Philippine cinema. While the daily headlines post reports of harrowing violence (e.g., extrajudicial killings, gang wars and rub-outs, bloated corpses found on river banks), a small number of films like Deligero’s bother to mirror this grisly state of affairs. Deligero’s narrative covers the usual tropes of the genre but contextualizes these features with a spunky Cebuano idiom that is engaging and reinvigorating. For example, Ouano’s periodic debates with Tangoroy often shot in close-ups is both particular and universal. Ouano’s foul-mouthed reprimands and habitual and mannered code-switching is a satirical jab at the officiousness of local police authority work and resonates as another instance or symptom of police ineptitude in general.
In a detective film, an obligatory scene involves the revelation of the mastermind behind the despicable crime. Deligero unravels a left-field epiphany at the end but the route Deligero charts for the audiences to reach this plot point comes off as trippy rather than creepy. It is as if we hiked in a park with scattered obstacles instead of finding our way out of a challenging maze. At several points in the story, Ouano reminds Tangoroy of the expectations of influential people for a solution to the crime. However, we hardly feel the claims Ouano makes about the crime’s high stakes and game-changing consequences. We are jolted every now and then by the sudden deaths of Tangoroy’s peers but we do not empathize with nor care about their fates. Part of the reason for this is that the film lays out a trail of wan clues to work with. Secondly, there is scant screen time given to the development of the victims’ characters. If ever they appear onscreen, they along with some of the suspects are represented in thumbnail sketches. Even Tangoroy himself remains an enigmatic presence. Our knowledge of his inner ticks such as his propensity to videotape gruesome deeds does not rise beyond our awareness of his constant viewing of a child absorbed in play. Ouano chides him for certain past failures but these are obliquely mentioned. For a good part of the movie, characterization happens in terms of foregrounding the individual quirks of the film’s motley cast of characters (e.g. Ouano’s penchant for stress relieving colored lights and Arnel Mardoquio as Trifon “Tito” Abog dressed in all white ensemble). In so doing, Deligero dilutes the gravitas of Tangoroy’s investigation. The soundtrack’s sporadic outbursts of metal rock tries to kick in a sense of urgency in the story but these tend to give off a hip vibe rather than project impending danger.
In spite of these gaps, the film’s energetic pace manages to sustain our attention and interest. Deligero’s tongue-in-cheek observations on his milieu’s heinous transgressions is crisp and promising. Hopefully, he follows up on this film with another chronicle that this time is deep on the many bad things that threaten to drag our lives and society down to the gutter.
BECAUSE OUR HISTORIES ARE FALSE, WE MIGHT AS WELL MAKE THEM COMIC AND TRAGIC
Tito Genova Valiente
The title is cool, the characters should be all dudes. But, in Keith Deligero’s narrative, policemen or detectives have to be grim and dull. They should have sidekicks who will catch all the angst of the chief investigator even as he remains on the realm of bathos that is bravura and sick. They cannot be cool because the event does not happen in Metro Manila, or at least in the surrounding areas where murder and mayhems are considered national.
Set in Cebu, the story of this film, “A Short History of a Few Bad Things,” will forever be marginalized. If ever the tragic episodes that litter the stories in this film will be told to the nation, there will be a dateline and it will be there out in the peripheries, indicating a source that is not major, professing no gravitas at all. In this nation, only the evil that takes place in the central Manila spells doomsday; the dark clouds hovering over the cities outside the imperial core are merely clouds. Let the rains fall; let the storms rage. The region is the region and Manila is Manila, majestic progenitor of power, be it in cautionary tales or via poisoned pens.
“A Short History of a Few Bad Things” is a chronicle of murder and mishaps and legal bungling told through dialogues in Cebuano, which we assume can only be understood by those who speak the language. There is lost already the host of cineastes – and critics – who have to bear with the filter of language different not only from what they speak but from what they deem important and, well, love. And yet, “A Short History of a Few Bad Things” has dialogues in English. But this is not the English of the cultured, the comfortable middle-class; this is the language of the majority, those who did not have childhoods where nannies or, at least, titos and titas who learned the English grammar, could train their wards or their nephews or nieces to know where the lizard is and how the cows moo and to rigorously subject the children around them to the rigor of a song about “my toes, my knees, my shoulder, my head” as if climate change depends on rote memory and pretend inflections.
Indeed, if there is English spoken in Deligero’s opus, “A Short History of a Few Bad Things,” it is the language that is a commentary – social and cinematic – about how we can be investigated each day not so much with our lack of nationalism as with our bungled identities.
Indeed, if we are to laugh at the antics of the chief investigator who would only speak in English – in his own kind of English – it is not because his accent betrays his class status but rather because our class status allows us to develop a sense of humor when it comes to people who speak English when their status should not allow them at all to do so.
But, Deligero, the director who confesses to doing films because he is acutely conscious of the art in it and because that is the only thing that makes sense, develops the character of Cebu Police Chief Ouano. This administrator speaks only English and, because he is always temperamental, he keeps himself calm and collected by controlling the only thing he can control: the light and its gradation in his office.
In fact, we are Ouano in this film: we cannot control things. We rant, we protest but the world marked by police line is the only true indicator to locate us. We are all in this world of uncontrollable bad intentions.
The storyline of “The Short History of a Few Bad Things” is singular. It references the film noir and with that cinematic citation carries with it the predictability of those who inhabit its put-on darkness: grouchy and ill-tempered investigators, inscrutable characters whose inscrutability borders on the mock and the spurious, and performances insanely lugubrious and demented.
There is folk humor involved in the film, a significant portion of it informed by local fiction lugubrious and insane at the same time. As the investigation moves on, the music, like some wayward theme, starts to multiply, mutilate, and scintillate. There are the songs about detergents and memories, perhaps, of warm households, of “butete” or puffer fish to remind us that each time we eat, as we face the table, the quotidian meal becomes a festival of prospective toxin. A love song constantly floats in the form of artifice and a melody that could be the theme for the violence rising like deathly smoke to the heavens. Paralleling the musical intervention are the characters dying as leads are identified. A name leads to another; the killing of one gives rise to the killing of another. Leads are given but as soon as they are identified, the truth of that matter vanishes.
The unpredictable and the ellipses commit a conspiracy in this tale of Keith Deligero. When the end comes and the revelation takes place, the film does not end there. This is not, after all, mainstream cinema. This is regional cinema, propelled by the urges of a filmmaker who does not work on formulae and time-tested rules about good film. The film is a send-up, a witty parody of all those films that have made us into what we are today, an audience of notorious obedience to the laws of monolithic art.
What will it take for regional cinema to be seen as “big?” This is a necessary question as the films not from the Manila remain in the category of the regional. When will critics stop celebrating the “rawness” of films from the periphery and document it for what it is – the true nature of the real as, without illusion and the push of commerce, depicted by those who valuate the worlds unknown and disjointed from the fascist capital?
In the case of Keith Deligero, he proves to be quite a historian. His short history is a long account of how crimes in this country can be totally political, cinematic and entertaining. The only good thing about Deligero is that he promises to continue films and that he will never be a politician in the elective sense of the word. If he, like the other regional filmmakers play their political cards well, and continue making their kind of films following their peripheral hearts and marginalized minds, they and not the politicians will change the politics of this land.
Every action film, Pauline Kael would remind us, has something fascist in it. The film, “A Short History of a Few Bad Things” murders any intention to view it as an action film. It asks us, with a wink of the bad left eye, to consider the genre peopled by action stars and sleuths as one of the false notes of cinema gifted by the commerce of the central and the mainstream. Truth resides in the absence of embellishment favored by those whose lenses luxuriate in the margins.
A SHORT HISTORY OF A FEW BAD THINGS (2018) Direction: Keith Deligero; Screenplay: Paul Grant, et al.; Producer: Gale Osorio; Music: Jamaar Ajero, et al.; Cinematography: Keith Deligero, et al,; Editing: Keith Deligero, et al.; Production Design: Kent Divinagracia; Cast: Victor Neri, Jay Gonzaga, Publio Briones III, Maricel Sombrio, Kent Divinagracia, Hesus Deligero, Rey Samaco, Arnel Mardoquio, Julius Augustus Ambrad, Felicisimo Alingasa, Ryles Cameron, Mel Baquiran, Remton Siega Zuasola, Crezzo Paz, Vitto Neri; Running Time: 87 mins.
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