ML (2018), dir. Joel Lamangan


Nicanor G. Tiongson

To date, no other film has portrayed the horrors of martial law under Ferdinand Marcos as vividly and as alarmingly as Benedict Mique Jr.’s ML. Using a realistic style that at times assumes a symbolic level, the Cinemalaya winner is both a grim reminder of what martial law from 1972 to 1986 really was as well as a warning to those who naively insist today that it was a golden period in the country’s history.

In a political science class, a teacher discusses the effects of martial law to his class of millenials. But two students, club-hopping friends Carlo and Jace,  glibly contradict him, saying the martial period was an era of peace and prosperity. Rather than debate with them, the teacher gives the students an assignment for next class: interview someone who lived through that period. Upon his  barkada’s advice, Carlo interviews a doddering old man, the retired Col. De la Cruz, who lives in a 1950s bungalow on September 21 St., in the same subdivision.

And the ordeal begins. Suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, the former Metrocom colonel thinks it is still martial law, and Carlo is an activist in league with the communist underground. He clobbers Carlo unconscious and when the latter wakes up, he is already tied to a chair in the colonel’s dark basement. Now dressed as a Metrocom officer, the colonel interrogates Carlo, asking him to reveal the location of their headquarters (HQ). Carlo cannot answer, so the colonel beats him black and blue, and later, pulls out his toenails with pliers. Carlo asks the colonel why he is doing this. The colonel replies: “It is martial law.”

Just then, Jace rings Carlo’s cellphone and the colonel graciously invites him to join Carlo in the house. When Jace arrives, he is tied to a chair and asked if Valkyrie (a name he found in Carlo’s phone) is the name of their HQ.  Jace says Valkyrie is the club he and Carlo frequent at the BGC. The colonel believes Jace is lying, so he proceeds to administer the water cure on Jace.

The next day, the colonel electrocutes Carlo in the fingers, the nipples, and the penis, because he would not say whether Pat and Shawna (the girlfriends of Carlo and Jace respectively, whose names are in the cellphone) are comrades in the movement. The colonel then decides to call Pat herself and invite her to join Carlo and Jace in the “party” in the colonel’s house. The unsuspecting Pat arrives, and is dragged by the colonel to the basement where she is tied lying down on a bench. After she is stripped naked, the colonel inserts a bottle into her vagina to make her reveal where Valkyrie is. The colonel is not satisfied with her answer so he lights a cigarette and proceeds to burn her nipples and vagina, in full view of Carlo and Jace.

Desperate to get an answer, the colonel launches a passionate attack on the communists, the CIA, the politicians who steal in government, boasting that they, the soldiers are the ones who are going to save the country. Finding the kids unmoved by his harangue, the colonel then forces them to play Russian roulette (with a gun with a single-bullet), and Jace shoots himself dead.

Just then, the doorbell rings. The colonel locks the basement behind him and warmly welcomes his daughter, her husband and two children, who just dropped by because they happened to be in the area. Against his wife’s protestations, the husband talks about the continuing tokhang operations, then directly asks the colonel if he tortured anyone during martial law. The colonel replies that he did everything to protect the country and his family. The children run to their mother saying they heard something in the basement, but the colonel says it’s just the wind. Before leaving, the daughter and her children kiss the colonel, who now is all kindness and caring.

After the family leaves, the colonel dumps Jace’s body at a roadside with a cardboard sign saying “Drug-pusher Ako : Huwag Tularan.”  Meanwhile, Carlo and Pat untie themselves and are about to run out of the house when they encounter the colonel in the dining room. He bars their escape, insisting it is martial law, but the two are able to elude him. Promptly, the colonel cleans the basement, so that when the police arrive with the parents of Carlo, Jace and Pat, they find nothing incriminating there. Instead, the police tell the parents that their children are probably hallucinating on drugs, since one of them was a drug-pusher.

The following day, Carlo returns to the colonel’s house at night, intending to kill the old man with a knife. But the colonel is already dead. Ironically, the colonel is buried in the Libingan ng mga Bayani  — like Marcos. In the next  polisci class, the teacher calls on Carlo to share what he found out in his interview about martial law. Full of pain and anger, Carlo is at a loss for words.

The film’s power and impact may be attributed to a)  Mique’s well-constructed plot that begins innocently enough, then slowly builds up both action and suspense step by shocking step to the climactic scene with the aid of  tight but fluid, invisible editing by Mikael Pestano ; b) Anne Monzon’s cinematography, which clearly contrasts the light of day for the “normal” life of the colonel on the streets and on the first floor of his house, with the secret activities of the same in the dark, shadowy basement, which is also a metaphor for his warped and wicked mind; c) the acting of Eddie Garcia, a psychopath who can be both normal and gentle father and grandfather and a jaded, self-righteous executioner whose cruelty is palpable in his seedy eyes, of Tony Labrusca whose transformation from naïve party-goer to bitter and battered victim is credible (moving even), and of the two very competent supporting actors  Lianne Valentin and Henz Villaraiz; d) the rock music of the 1970s chosen by Pearlsha Abubakar-Quebral that recalls both the period and the violence of martial law;  and e) the over-all direction by Mique whose deft handling of all the above would seem to proceed from a firm conviction in the urgency  of the film’s message.

What is also admirable about the film is that it is able to simultaneously grapple with both the past and the present conditions of the country, underscoring the fact that the violent past that we thought we had buried and left behind has come back, not just to haunt us but to subject us once more, quite literally, to the iron-grip of the dictatorial hand. After being overthrown and exiled, the Marcoses (all chips off the old block) have returned, getting elected into local and national positions and now going into an alliance with a self-confessed admirer of the dead dictator whom he emulates in word and deed. Like the tortures depicted in the film, the suppression of the critical press, the systematic take-over of the house of representatives, the courts, and now the senate by the president’s allies, the firm hold on the police and military who are loyal to the president personally rather than to the constitution, are all a frightening repetition of everything that happened before and after martial law. ML is an in-your-face reminder that martial law has crept back into the country without even having to be formally declared.

And even more unsettling is the filmmaker’s insight that torture has become so common and accepted in our society as a “standard operational procedure” to get information from “subversives” that it has become possible to have in one and the same person, without any contradiction,  a loving family man by day and a bloody torturer by night. Shocking too is the realization that many Filipinos have been made to believe and have in fact  learned to condone flagrant violations of human rights as a necessary step to ensure “peace” in our society. With such a mentality, it is no wonder that soldiers, even if they are proven thieves and torturers, can still be elected to the house and the senate or to positions, high and low, in the local government.

Finally, the film interrogates the values of a society that has a warped notion of heroism. The sadist and monstrous colonel is buried in the Libingan ng mga Bayani, like the plunderer and fascist Marcos, while activists who call out abuses of those in power and work for social justice end up in paupers graves, if their bodies are found at all. In life as in death, it is the powerful who define heroism. And so goes the schizophrenia of a nation that pays homage to Rizal and Bonifacio who offered their lives to end the oppression of their people, and in the same breath acclaims “strong” leaders who are admired for their open violation of human rights. Films like ML are badly needed to make Filipinos recognize and understand these contradictions in their society, so that they will stop inflicting on themselves leaders that will be their curse and affliction.  

Pagpolitisa ng Pinoy Thriller

Rolando B. Tolentino

Umangat ang ML hindi dahil lang epektibo itong thriller o ang klase ng pelikula na humuhubog ng mood ng manonood tungo sa umiigting na pakiramdam ng kaguluhan, pananabik, pagkabigla, anxiedad at antisipasyon kundi dahil politikal ang paksa na pinili nitong talakayin sa naratibo.  Martial law ang paksa, at ukol ang pelikula sa isang millennial na estudyanteng lalake na naghahangad ng interviewee para sa assignment hinggil sa paksa sa isang matandang retiradong sundalong ofisyal na kapitbahay. 

Lingid sa kanyang kaalaman ay flip pala ang matanda dahil sa pakikipanayam dito ay kinidnap na ito sa basement, mahigpit na itinali sa silya, at pinadanas ang iba’t ibang tortyur na ginagawa ng matanda sa mga nahuhuling aktibista sa panahon ng martial law.  Techie rin ang matanda na gamit ang cellphone ng estudyante ay isa-isang inimbitahan ang mga kaibigan nito sa bahay para itortyur sa harap ng isa’t isa.

Ang thriller ay gumagana sa pamamagitan ng susing pagtatago at paglalantad ng mga detalye, twists-and-turns, at sindak factor sa akmang sandali.  Graphiko ang mga eksena ng iba’t ibang torytur dahil flip nga ang ofisyal at walang magawa ang nakataling estudyante.  Sinasaniban ng sikretong personalidad ang ofisyal na kahit noong aktwal na martial law ay may kasiyahan ito sa pagtotyur.  Sa pamamagitan ng Pinoy rock , malinaw na sinematograpiya ng kalakhang interior na eksena, at presisyon sa editing, ang sikodelikong mundo ng fasismo, kapangyarihan, awtoridad at dominasyon ay muling umiinog sa kasalukuyang sityo ng basement.

Angat si Eddie Garcia sa pagganap bilang Colonel na ang pisikalidad ay mas higit pang tumanda’t bumagal sa pagkilos sa pelikula, at napakahusay ang paggampan sa familiar na personalidad sa komunidad na may sikretong buhay sa basement.  Ang estudyanteng millennials ay walang muwang na magiliw na nagampanan nina Tony Labrusca (Carlo) bilang pangunahing biktima, at ang kaibigan nitong Jace (Henz Villaraiz) at kasintahang Pat (Lianne Valentin). 

Malinaw ang age gap sa victimizer at mga biktima gayong may indirektang isinasaad din ang naratibo ng pelikula sa pagkasadlak ng mga tauhan sa kanilang mga mundo:  si Colonel na hindi lamang naka-move on sa pagiging martial law torturer kundi stuck at inaasam-asam pa ngang muli’t muling magampanan itong papel sa mga kasalukuyang pagkakataon, at mga millennial na stuck sa mga sarili nitong ATM (at the moment) na mga konsern, walang muwang sa nakaraan at walang ganap na linaw sa hinaharap.

Nagtagumpay ang Pinoy thriller na ito dahil masinop at graphikong napaangat ang pelikula lampas sa genre film.  Sa masusing pagmumundo sa hindi pa maisara-sarang nakaraan sa martial law, Marcoses, fasismo at awtoritarianismo ng nakaraan, ang mga abstraktong figura nito ay nailantad at nabibigyan-buhay sa mga kaganapan sa maliit na mundo ng basement ng Colonel.

Malinaw sa pelikula na #NeverForget dahil hindi pa nga #NeverAgain sa martial law.  Hindi naka-move on ang bansa sa martial law dahil sa kontraryo, lalo pa nga itong namamayagpag sa mga post-Marcos na administrasyon.  Ang fasismo ay nanatili sa awtokratikong pamamalakad ng mga nahalal na pangulo para ang kanilang faksyon naman ng naghaharing uri ang mamayagpag.  Ang netong efekto, ang matataas na body count at collateral damage, lalo na sa hanay ng mahihirap at political dissenters.

Sa edad ng comeback ng Marcoses, sa muling deklarasyon ng state of emergency ni Gloria Arroyo at martial law Mindanao ni Rodrigo Duterte, sa libo-libong biktima ng politikal na pagpaslang at Oplan Tokhang, ang martial law at ang mga kakambal nitong fasismo at awtoritarianismo ay malinaw na higit pang namamayagpag sa bansa.  Walang pagkatuto dahil hindi naman formal na isinara ng mga post-Marcos administrasyon ang yugtong ito.  Walang fact-finding commissions na itinalaga na ang resulta ay ipinatupad, kasama ang pagkakaso at pagpapakulong sa mga mapang-abusong diktador at administrasyon, tulad sa mga bansang Chile, South Korea, South Africa, at iba pa.

Wala ring lumanding na kritikal na pananaw sa panahong ito sa mga librong pangkasaysayan.  Walang museo na naitatag para gunitain ang pambansang trauma na ito para hindi muling maulit.   Walang sustenidong paglalantad at paghuhubad kaya ang megalomia ng Marcoses sa kanilang pagsisimula kay Ferdinand ay lalo pa ngang nagpapatuloy at naipapatanggap sa kasalukuyan.

Bagkus pa, sa edad ng social media at fake news, ginamit pa nga ang mga ito para mahimok sa historikal na rebisyonismo ang mga kabataan:  na ang martial law ay nakabuti sa Filipinas, na pinakamaganda ang pag-unlad ng ekonomiya ng bansa sa panahon ng Marcoses, na walang naganap na paglabag sa mga karapatang pantao o plunder sa panahon ng diktadura, at iba pa.  Ang resulta:  bigtime na nakabalik ang Marcoses—na halos naging bise si Bongbong, nahalal na gobernador si Imelda ng Ilocos na naipasa sa kanyang apo ang pwesto, na senador na si Imee, at iba pa.

My sad republic talaga.  Kaya ambag sa anti-rebisyonismo ang ML para patuloy pa ring paigtingin ang #NeverForget at #NeverAgain.  Kung hindi ito ginagawa ng mga sistemang politikal at edukasyon, nagawa at nagagawa naman ito ng pelikula at iba pang mga sining.  Nauna na ang pelikulang Kakaba Ka Ba (Mike de Leon, 1980) na ginamit ang karahasan at kapatiran ng fraternity para i-simulate ang panlipunan at politikal na karahasan ng martial law.  Dito rin ang eksena na kung saan ang historikal na lagay ay nabanggit—“Ang martial law ay nakabuti sa bansa.”—kahit pa ang ofisyal na kalakaran ay huwag itong sinasambit.

Naipasok din ang mood ng paninikip ng dibdib, mabigat sa loob na martial law sa kadiliman ng syudad at pagkasadsad sa burak ng buhay sa mga pelikulang Maynila sa Kuko ng Liwanag (Lino Brocka, 1975), Manila by Night (Ishmael Bernal, 1980), Kisapmata (de Leon, 1981), Oliver (Nick Deocampo, 1983), Bayan Ko: Kapit sa Patalim (Brocka, 1984), Sister Stella L (de Leon, 1984), at Scorpio Nights (Peque Gallaga, 1985).  Matatapang ang mga pelikula dahil ATM nitong kinuwestyon ang panlipunang realidad ng martial law at diktadurya ng Marcoses.

Lalo pang namayagpag ang mga pelikulang mas direktang pinaksa ang martial law matapos ang diktaduryang Marcoses noong Pebrero 1986.  Matapos ang ika-46 na taon ng deklarasyon ng batas militar, ang ML ay patuloy pa ring nagpapaalaala sa pinalilimot na trauma ng bansa, lalo na at ang mga kumakatawan ng sanhi nitong trauma ay patuloy pa ring buhay at makapangyarihan sa bansa  Ipinapaalala ng ML ang pilit na ipinapalimot at pinapa-move on.

Ang kaiba sa ML ay malinaw ang manonood na gusto nitong maabot, ang millennials na walang muwang sa historikal na ganap at kung bakit kailangan itong kasalukuyang henerasyon ay mamulat para mabigkis sa naunang henerasyon, at maituloy sa susunod na henerasyon na may alam na, may pakialam pa kaya makikialam hinggil sa kabutihang lagay ng kanilang bayan.

ML (2018) Direction: Benedict Mique; Screenplay: Benedict Mique; Producer: Roselle Lorenzo, et al.; Music: Pearlsha Abubakar; Cinematography: Anne Monzon; Editing: Mikael Angelo Pestaño; Production Design: Mark Sabas; Cast: Eddie Garcia, Tony Labrusca, Lianne Valentin, Henz Villaraiz, Jojit Lorenzo, Rafael Siguion-Reyna, Chanel Latorre, Chrome Prince Cosio; Running Time: 90 mins.

Back to MPP Reviews 2

%d bloggers like this: