Tuesday, November 24, 2015

DAYANG ASU (Bor Ocampo, 2015)

The dogs are not Disneyfied. They are pitiful pawns, commodities of mercantilization. Another animality earns notoriety, in full display, but no sense of compunction here, about the crimes portrayed, about the depraved with double lives, described in a trickle-down hierarchy, about this "dog nation" that hints at a descent into cannibalism. The resolution is part retribution, but also heralds an open end, a testament to the resilience of entrenched culture of crime and corruption. It takes a page from Godfather III, a prelude to Godfather IV which would have depicted a new reign of terror. The ascendant protagonist in Bor Ocampo's film, however, is a reluctant participant, someone thrust into it, a wounded tiger (or a wounded dog?) who must lick his wounds and respond to the ferocity within.

The circle of crime. The vortex of it all. Herein lies Dayang Asu's focus, yet, for good or bad, it verges on moral ambiguity. Good in the sense that the audience was clapping at the end of it, but suspect in the sense that its peripheral depictions go overshadowed. For one, the film's sacrificial victims, in the form of Muslims, get buried in more ways than one. Consequently what Etienne Balibar might refer to as "internal, differential racism," which underlies our society to the detriment of minorities like Muslims, is touched on but goes under-theorized. (Based on cultural differences, the religious racism surrounding Islam is common to us and Balibar's France). Missed opportunity, but it would have been conversely a polemical flashpoint had the film taken that route. (Ralston Jover's Hamog, another festival entry, enfleshes its Muslim characters with more depth, but just the same problematizes them.)   

What occupies the quicksilver time, instead, is the fast montage about a nation, set in the microcosm of Pampanga, in the thrall of men in power abusing power, while everyone downstream follows suit or cowers in fear. Nothing new, except that these proceedings are observed by formative eyes. Here the tension between nomos (law/order) and physis (chaos), however, is a source of humor and horror. For, in truth, the figures who wield law and order are the very forces of chaos. The film tosses us red herrings that there is hope, but how is the underworld portrayed in any national cinema, let alone the one with such rich iconography of crime we keep patronizing, Hollywood?

Blunt metaphor to hit our heads with, but there are two kinds of dogs here: one is the privileged dog that gets to fetch a middleman’s price and lands in the lap of innocent coddling and petting. The second kind is not as lucky, gets butchered for the mouths of those who have lost civilized conduct. But these dog-eaters are cunning. Some have families, well-grounded even, who have no clue what they are up to. As for the wretched dogs, none gets spared. But none becomes so feral as to bite back as in Samuel Fuller's White Dog (a better film) or Kornel Mundruczo's White God (a worse one). In all these films, ultimately, the rabidity of men is what's truly in the crosshairs.

Behind the camera, Bor Ocampo is up to the task: his award for best direction isn't undeserved. Speed, shifty editing, is his calling card, his tribute to Eisenstein perhaps, with a restless kinetic feel that propels us, disoriented and hard-pressed to catch up from one shot to the next, as if the establishing shots are all but jettisoned and most of the shots are always-already in the middle, where action and the colorful, piquant turn of phrase (mostly in Kapampangan) are the only logic. Like bullets ricocheting, like a Morse code sending out a dire message in rapid dots and dashes, the film keeps us on the backfoot, until the unraveling at the end. An end for which, originality aside, Mario Puzo would have done a double-take. 

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