Subscribe to the APA Newsletter
While everyone else hustles to spook us in newer, splashier ways, the Phillipines' Sigaw remembers that seeing is only half of believing. The other half has something to do with a knock-knock joke gone horribly wrong...
I have to admit that I had my qualms as I waited for the DVD player to finish loading the copy of Yam Laranas’ film Sigaw (2004). A Philippine horror film? Given the string of Ring or Grudge-like spin-offs, I was wary of what the film would lack, already established in my bias against Philippine cinematic imports, with the exception of Khavn de la Cruz (that is, if his films ever get legally distributed here in any format). Even during the credits and opening scenes, I was emphatically shaking my head over the seemingly excessive use of sound effects and a roving camera to literalise the horror (thereby annulling it) as opposed to having it develop organically from the combination of lighting, décor, acting and dialogue -- in other words, atmosphere. Moreover, the opening scenes employed the usual mix of Tagalog and English words that, for me, spell out the deep-rooted problems of the notion of Philippine cinema as a national cinema, the films speaking as they do in what I call a “border tongue,” for lack of a better term. However, as the film progressed and my bias let its guard down, I began to realise that beyond the categorisation of horror, Sigaw is a methodological cinematic exercise of a case of domestic abuse against women charged with, yes, atmosphere. Of course, the female body as the center/target of male violence is one of the oldest tropes in the cinematic codes for the horror film, which makes Sigaw doubly interesting.
Through the male lead character, Marvin (Richard Gutierrez), the spectator gets to know three female characters when he moves into a cheap apartment building from his mother’s house to assert his independence: his girlfriend Pinky (Angel Locsin); one of his neighbours down the hall, Anna (Iza Calzado); and her daughter, Lara (Ella Guevara). Initially, the unit into which Marvin has moved into appears like any ordinary apartment building -- there are occasional spats between a couple, Anna and Bert (Jomari Yllano), down the hallway -- but paying them no heed, his life continues. Marvin's relationship with Pinky serves almost as a healthy parallel to Bert’s relationship with Anna. Little by little, though, eerie occurrences related to the couple’s problems in and around his apartment begin to tear away the stability of his humdrum life. The increasing violence between Bert and Anna becomes unavoidable, as Marvin’s neighbour, Jude (James Blanco) becomes involved when Anna asks him to watch Lara until Bert finishes his abusive tirade whenever he comes home and finally goes to bed. Anna comes to rely on Jude’s help, but at a crucial moment when Bert’s jealousy heightens dramatically, Jude refuses to help Anna. The tense sequence is masterfully edited for dramatic effect; Anna knocks insistently at Jude’s door and pleads for help as Bert approaches her with his police baton while Jude’s hesitation and ultimate refusal to open the door coupled with Marvin’s helplessness (cowardice) as a mere auditor to the event -- himself locked safely in his apartment and also refusing to help Anna -- questions ultimately the act/decision of aiding a domestic abuse victim to take action against her aggressor and end the violent cycle of abuse. Even if that aid were to come in the form of, say, opening the door. Much more effective than any of the other sound effects employed in the film is Anna’s knocking, expressing the fear, pain, frustration and vulnerability of her life as a servant and scratching post for her husband.
The film, in effect, does not resort to too much dialogue -- thus partially avoiding the pitfall of the “border tongue” and due, in part, to the cast numbering only ten -- and in contrast to the sound effects, the girl portrayed by Ella Guevara does not utter one word. Laranas realised wisely, in the vein of Kurosawa Kiyoshi, that in silence there is also horror. The most effective sequences are those in which the characters engage with each other in terms of the gaze; that is, when the camera registers a character listening by looking vis-à-vis another character, be they in the same room or separated by a door. Laranas’ photography (he served also as the film’s cinematographer) and direction captures Richard Gutierrez’ expressions of fear and horror in the most effective way. Though at times the camera’s own gaze is confusing, as when it roams around the darkened hallways of the apartment building as if it were registering a character’s point of view walking around when in fact it is just the camera “searching” (for what?), perhaps it is Laranas’ way to carry the spectator’s suspended belief in his claustrophobic world of shadows, populated by a wandering little girl holding a ragged doll, a squeaky elevator and a run-down apartment building.
The fact that the film is shot mostly in interiors -- the characters hardly see the light of day -- is significant in light of the female body that is in question in the horror film. Ultimately, the roles of Anna, Lara and Pinky converge into one in the apartment building, the site of violence, oppression and suppression experienced by the female, and jealousy, rejection and indifference exerted by the male. Anna is the woman who is abused, but by default, her daughter, Lara, is also abused by Bert, whose jealous nature compels him to believe that he is not the father. In turn, when both Marvin and Pinky become involved in the couple’s domestic violence, Pinky is subjected to the same hits and humiliation when she enters the couple’s apartment. What begins as a narrative consisting of three stories seemingly separate and different -- the couple and their child; Marvin and Pinky; Jude the neighbour, which appears initially to lessen the suspense of the overall film -- come together into one and the same story to illustrate the female body as the necessary element in horror. The repetition of the key event of the narrative presented from different points of view, angles and moments lends an hypnotic mood and is the film’s most interesting element, expressing visually the regularity of Bert’s abuse. The “poltergeist beating” of Pinky in the couple’s apartment, alone as she is against the wall or on the floor as her body becomes bruised, is a tense, fascinating, minimalist sequence of that abuse.
It is, perhaps, not an accident that the literal translation of the Tagalog word sigaw is “scream,” which recalls the popular American horror trilogy of the same name of the late '90s that involves a female being killed off in the first scene/half of the film (one of the most famous being that of Janet Leigh in Psycho). What makes Miike Takashi’s Audition (1999) so compelling and outrageous at the same time as a horror film is the woman’s position: she is the one who eventually exercises (extreme) violence over the male. Can anyone cite more than a dozen titles (if that) of horror films where it is the woman who “terrorises” a town or camp site versus the list of male slashers -- Jason, Freddy Kruger, Mike Myers, Pinhead, et al.? I am not sure if “Bride” titles (Bride of Frankenstein, etc.) would qualify.
Being marketed internationally as The Echo and having both Asia and Hollywood abuzz with the positive film reviews generated on the Internet, Sigaw’s North American theatrical premiere will be through the Screamfest LA International Horror Film Festival from the 14-23 of October 2005 at the Loews Universal Studios Cinemas at Universal City Walk, where previous Asian horror imports such as Ringu (1997) and A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) received theatrical premieres. Currently one of the top ten bestsellers in the home entertainment realm in the Philippines through the domestic production/distribution company Regal Entertainment, Sigaw and its crew -- Laranas; editor Manet A. Dayrit, the senior editor/facilities manager of RoadRunner Network-Film and the Philippines’ top innovative digital, film and audio post-production house; and screenwriter Roy C. Iglesias -- are receiving international attention unseen for a Philippine film since the heyday of the “New Philippine Cinema” of the '70s, thanks to films by directors such as Lino Brocka and Eddie Romero, with whom Iglesias has worked. Given such a talented and experienced roster and the resulting film, I feel shameful about my initial bias, which just goes to show how little of Philippine films reach North American shores to prove that there are great talents in all aspects of film production in the country. The ensemble acting of Gutierrez, Angel Locsin, Iza Calzado, Jomari Yllana, Ella Guevara, James Blanco and Ronnie Lazaro contribute greatly to the film’s methodical pace and disturbing atmosphere. Calzado’s and Yllana’s performances in particular, filled with persuasive nuances in each variation of the crucial moment of the narrative, anchor the film’s suspense.
The buzz around Sigaw was initiated by Laranas and his colleague Chuck Gutierrez’ decision to reach a potential audience through the world of the blog and the Internet, as they sent DVD screeners to various horror film websites and gurus for review, thus creating an alternative distribution practice that costs less but which has an impact far more effective and far-reaching, securing representation in Hollywood for Laranas in the form of Renee Tab of International Creative Management, Inc. (ICM). Laranas and Gutierrez’ plan of action proves that the Internet as the emerging dominant site of distribution and exhibition sources is borderless (another filmmaker, Robert Greenwald, has also chosen the Internet as a means to “create change, not just movies,” for his upcoming documentary on Wal-Mart), although Hollywood should not be the end goal, for whether or not a remake will be in the works, what remains is the Philippine industry and the lack of (government) funds to aid filmmakers beyond those who deal with commercially driven vehicles and borrowed plots from Hollywood. (Khavn de la Cruz springs quickly to mind.) It will be interesting to see where Sigaw -- Laranas’ fifth film as director and ninth film as cinematographer -- will take Laranas, as the film has also been accepted by the CineAsia Film Festival in Germany.
At any rate, it is satisfying for the Philippine film industry -- especially for Regal Entertainment, Inc., one of the top Philippine studios existing today -- to know that Sigaw will reach at least one very important theatrical screen in North America through ScreamFest, thus giving audiences the opportunity to see/experience a film that should be placed alongside the Pang Brothers’ The Eye (2002), Audition and Kurosawa Kiyoshi’s Séance (2000).
For further information on Laranas, Regal Entertainment, Inc. and Sigaw, visit:
Date Posted: 9/8/2005