The city is on a hair-trigger. In Lawrence Fajardo’s unsettling and unnerving feature debut Amok, a new day starts out like any other day in the metropolis. The hustle and bustle registers with little divergence from our own conceptions of the city. We can recognize the faces. Pedestrians ply the overpasses and pavements, vendors and hobos scatter, vehicles honk in gridlock. This day seems like any other day. On the soundtrack, however, cautionary lyrics ring out, a song rapped by a group of young street kids. The frictions borne out of our proximities, the words suggest, can be dangerous.
Shot in crisp and vivid broad daylight, Fajardo’s film may telegraph oncoming violence, but its plausible choreography gives us pause: this can indeed happen. Or at least this film earns it: it takes an elaborate construction of disparate urban stories to get there. Like an Italo Calvino novel, it weaves together beginnings of stories with only spatial and temporal proximity as their connection. But his clutch of stories has one common and damning pay-off, unless the very admonition betrays us.
The stories are everyday and novel enough. We recognize the characters, so their fates are all the more astonishing to us when it is over. A father and teenage son wait for the bus ride home to the province, their talk filled with filial intimacy. An uncle and his nephew hurry off to a job interview. An aging stunt man awakens with thoughts of better days, while a prostitute sleeps in his bed. An aging matriarch reproaches her driver for being caught in traffic. A talent agent and his new ward have an altercation with a disobliging taxi driver. And a game of billiards plays out with much heckling among street layabouts. Soon there is gamesmanship, one-upmanship, and with money on the line, the nerves start to fray.
Fajardo is a patient and polished operator. He has the assurance of an old hand and shows a flair for thrilling action. It helps that he has assembled an ensemble of tried and tested veteran actors to give life to disparate characters. Mark Gil’s aging erstwhile actor is pure effete perfection, and when his sexy prostitute sports an Adam’s apple, Gil nauseously exclaims how it would ruin his career. Hilarity ensues. And his preening behavior before the camera at the end alleviates the astonishing events. The altercations here are almost just as charged and inspired. The taxi driver and gay talent agent’s verbal exchanges are humorous but dangerous. Dido dela Paz as a gunrunning thug has the leer and offending parlance that will embroil him in trouble. At every turn, he is making enemies.
In Amok, violence may not just be threats to corporeal being but the final expression of the pent-up inflictions on our private psyche. When the time is ripe, the setting turns into a city at war, where all rules of common decency are suggestions. However, he does not posit the usual suspects. Fajardo implicates one and everyone in his cynical city. Unintended casualties should disabuse us of our complacency. And violence, when it erupts, is like a bullet that won’t pick its victim. In its illustration of extermination, Amok is almost like a statement of threat, a deterrent. We are not beyond violence. And yet Fajardo seems to overplay the angle of suspended civility, too much that Amok becomes a cynical movie. Still, Fajardo, if he so wishes, can invoke our checkered history. Heck, human tendency is behind him, for that matter.