The society of respected film critics that hands out the annual Gawad Urian in cinematic excellence

Engkwentro: Salvaging the arts and facts of violence

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By Tito Genova Valiente

IN Pepe Diokno’s film “Engkwentro,” youth is not wasted on the young; rather the world of adults creates, imposes, and leaves this system where the youth is bound to destroy the youth. It is a pretty hopeless situation. In “Engkwentro,” this hopelessness is marked by boundaries that are relentlessly oppressive to those watching from the outside. Inside the world of these young boys and girls, the grids and the borders are not even imagined. They seem to be there all the time, this habitat that will never allow anyone to escape.

The film “Engkwentro” begins with two brothers, one a member of a gang in the city and the other about to become a member of the rival gang. This development in the life of the two young boys, the younger deceptively innocent in his school uniform, is stated matter-of-factly. It just happens when the older boy is being haunted by the dreaded vigilante group allegedly headed by the city mayor.

Twenty-four hours in the life of the two brothers are all it takes for us to see what life has become to those in the margin. In those full hours, the film achieves what the other films in the past merely depicted. In “Engkwentro,” we are inserted into the life——or the death——of those gang members. This is the filmmaking that is apt for this present generation reared up for the interactive and voyeuristic. The camera jumps as the characters it follows jumps. One never knows when the camera is tracking along or when it will roll around to clamber up walls and dark horizons.

Dark, dark is the landscape for the gang members. One gang takes after their surrounding and calls themselves “Batang Dilim” (lit. Child of Darkness) while another hooks on to the image of the moon. The polarities are almost romanticized but it is only up to that point where the romance would be allowed by the film. The remainder of their lives is a composite of grit and drabness and isolation.

The slum in this film has narrow alleys. Cramping the already cramped space are those children singing silly songs and forever, it seems, teasing each other. Even the locals start to hate these children. When one walks the tiny streets of the village, one meets up deadends. The streets and corridors seem to end dead somewhere anytime. Unless one walks up the rotten stairways that seem to lead nowhere, too, one has this gut feel the inhabitants of this place can really never find their way out.

If there are way-outs, they are psychic destinations with their own immeasurably anxious psychic rewards. It can be a curve at the end of a small road, where gang members share drugs and exchange death threats. Guns are bought and clash-offs or gang wars have almost the feel of rain in a cloudy day. Death and pains are hovering infinitely over the heads of these young men. If the young women do appear, they are part of a dream that refuses to go away. This is the dream of leaving that place and going into a place that is almost uncertain. Jenny-Jane has that dream with Richard, her boyfriend. Richard does not show it but he realizes the death squad is after him. He is leaving the place to be with his mother who is in Manila. The two start to raise money by borrowing and by stealing and by selling drugs and guns.

There is nothing new in the households of these children. In most of them, the mother is out somewhere and the father is left behind. In the house of Jenny-Jane, for example, the mother uses the home as her own private brothel. The daughter appears to be used to it. This feeling of insouciance pervades the entire film, which is not really that gripping until we begin to understand that we have already nurtured resignation about life, that aspect that we humans are naturally equipped to protect and fight for.

I do not know what went on in the minds of the jurors in Venice, but I believe they were shocked out of their wits seeing how death in our land could come so easily. Here is a film that ably captures the aesthetics of violence and despair and still come out of it infinitely convincing and dreadfully realistic. In our land, where backhoes are not mere construction implements, this process of hewing arts out of annihilation is not an easy exercise.

I cannot go on anymore without spilling out spoilers. Let me just say that I broke into expletives three times in the cinema, because I did not expect a debut film to be dead on with the cold facts about this exotic act called “salvaging.” From a word that meant for all “saving,” we have created a new meaning out of it, which is the opposite of what it originally indicated. The film “Engkwentro” pays tribute to what our cities have also become, a place that tries to save itself while “salvaging” those it thinks are unwanted.

Felix Roco is touted to be at the center of the film “Engkwentro.” I agree. From that dreamy lad in that badly titled film “UPCAT,” Roco creates once more a character that is dreaming. It is, however, a different act this time. His “Richard” knows he cannot dream on in this land. If ever, he can only be in a bad dream. What is in this boy/man that fuels him to create a character that is so physically and psychologically real without going through the stereotypical route? He surely can teach a lot of our so-called leading men.

If Roco is at the material center of the film, another actor occupies the peripheral and nether air of the film. As the mayor out to clean the city at all cost, Celso Ad. Castillo is the omniscient Evil with his own cosmological plan to destroy and create. He is under and above and beside the world of the living, never at the spotlight but you know he is the one who handles all the plugs and switches. That grin and those eyes slit thin like a pig’s is a novel way of personifying the Bad. Castillo brilliantly succeeds in his role and does one bit more, to convince us that other people’s notion of order may really be the Devil working on the details of chaos and mayhem.

Pepe Diokno is credited with the screenplay with Bianca Balbuena and a host of other writers, including Nicholas Varela, Jerry Gracio and Felix Roco, the lead.