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

Yanggaw: The Affliction in Us All

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By Tito Genova Valiente

In a period when the form of anti-cinema seduces the audience, “Yanggaw” asks us to take it because it is relatively recognizable—and arguably the more accessible—of the many films that are lately produced. By accessibility, I am referring to the linear narrative of the film and should not be equated with something that is “facile” or plain. Such linearity, however, even makes more obvious the dimensions “Yanggaw” has recovered for us and reveals the many layers of storytelling that the well-wrought screenplay, because of its construction, is able to accomplish. The director, who is also credited for the screenplay, accomplishes what is difficult to accomplish: embedding the symbolic and the metaphorical in the actions and processes of the film. No stilted dialogues or contrived poses, just a storytelling that explores the many facets of patriarchy and myth-making in our cultures.

At the center of “Yanggaw” is the aswang, a major element in Philippine folk culture and a major victim of the tendency of Filipino film directors to latch the figure to Western, i.e. Hollywood, mode of narrative. Or, to Asian Gothic, i.e. Japanese horror.

It is strange also how it took a long time for a film to finally realize onscreen a most original meaning of the aswang belief: that it is not really about a viscera-sucker but more about the metaphor of family/stranger and outsider/insider. That, when all else fails to explain murder, deaths, disorder, even hate, there is always the unexplainable to latch onto.

“Yanggaw” begins with a family isolated from the rest of the community. The isolation is physical and social because the father of the family has decided he has nothing to do with any function in the community. One day, as all tale goes, the daughter who works in the city comes home very sick. There is no explanation for her affliction except that a healer declared there is toxin in her body—and in her soul. A form of healing takes place but the healer fails in his task.

The daughter gets even sicker. A series of deaths occur in the village. The village officials attribute the deaths to vendetta after a thief is hacked to death a few days earlier. The daughter disappears and is found by the father. Each time the daughter disappears, someone dies somewhere.

For a theme that is wide open for camp interpretation, the aswang in “Yanggaw” is not a mutation but, again, the victim. She cannot control herself. Her freedom to do anything in a land where people’s actions are hemmed in by geopolitics and her ability to eat anything in a place where hunger has circumscribed.

The tragic character of the aswang, however, is there in the fact that she is really the antithesis of what we think of our family, our community, and ourselves. We pride in showing our love for our own kin and the reverse of this is that we are ready to kill others. For the community, it is credible to ascribe killings to the anger of human beings rather than think of phantasms to explain them.

Then and now, the aswang remains the plausible explanation for our rage. “Yanggaw, “ as the word implies, looks at the human being as clean until infected by something else. It is not a system of values or screwed-up village politics but something that is outside that makes us bad or evil. The film goes further and complicates this metaphor when, at the end, the father decides to embrace the daughter even when she is no longer “human.” This chilling image for our irrationality and the surplus of kinship love are the major contributions of “Yanggaw” to the history of themes in Filipino cinema. And this is original.

All the actors participate in this grand gothic opera. Proving that it is not only the narrative that is wrenchingly original but also the performances, “Yanggaw” possesses a truly ensemble acting perhaps unseen since the days of Brocka when “bit players” were known to play their roles as if they were leads. Leading the pack are Ronnie Lazaro, Joel Torre, and Tetchie Agbayani—each one as arresting as the other. I do not know if it is the Ilonggo language but Torre is altogether a different person in this film. As the village official who has a way of accommodating friends and foe alike, Torre forms an emotional landscape all his own. When I watched the film, the audience really lapped up his inflection and body language. If in Tagalog films, Torre is compelling, in a film using what I assume to be his first language, the actor is a new presence. The lesson here is that language is liberating (and obfuscating) and can be a source of fresh perspectives.

The press releases mention how Agbayani encountered some difficulty with the non-Tagalog script. For most viewers though, she, however, more than makes up for that “deficiency” with a portrayal of a character that is terrifically nuanced even as the performance remains simple and nonromanticized. Love her or leave her. This brings us to another issue that the film brought about. Extra-cinematic, the use of Ilonggo in the film has caused bloggers to complain about how the faulty use of the language has turned the otherwise horror film into a funny film. This is a great debate that should rekindle the question about Manila-centrism in our film industry. In this country, the terrible and the beautiful have always been dictated by Manila perspective.

The debate notwithstanding, the film has Ronnie Lazaro branding the screen with such heat that all logic wilts before his loving and hardheaded patriarch. Unforgettable are those close-up shots of Lazaro. They are bare and, if there are techniques in being bare, the fact that we do not see the techniques is even horrifying. The scariest scenes in the film, however, are those with the character of Lazaro staying steadfast even when a monster is right there in the house he built. And when he sets free the witch so it could eat and survive, one sees the politics of this film and its writers: that which we know and hide deep in ourselves are the evil and the good. And both are not within our control, and both are embedded in our own quiet communities.