This is the very first film by Cannes-winning Filipino director Brillante Mendoza that I saw in a movie theater. At the outset, I am going to confess that I do not think I can judge this film very objectively. Watching this film with all its unsteady camera work made me very dizzy starting from the 40th minute. From that point, I could not even look directly at the screen anymore. The shaky camera was relentless, be it a frenetic battle scene or a quiet personal one. It certainly did not help that this was a 2-hour long film. My head is still reeling as I write this review, four hours after the end credits rolled! This is only the second time a movie made me feel sick, the first one being "The Blair Witch Project."
The movie was based on the 2001 Abu Sayyaf kidnapping of tourists from the Dos Palmas Resort in the province of Palawan. Two of the kidnap victims then were Martin and Gracia Burnham. Gracia survived her ordeal and wrote a book about her harrowing experiences entitled "In The Presence of My Enemies." I thought that acclaimed French actress Isabelle Huppert will be playing her, but it turned out that Ms. Huppert's central character of social worker Therese is fictional. Another Caucasian couple played minor characters who seemed to be based on the Burnhams.
After the abduction scenes in the beginning and four long days of sea travel, the film became what seemed to be an endless series of hiking through the jungles of Basilan, commandeering civilian places like a hospital or school, getting attacked by the Armed Forces, forcing a ceasefire by asking a victim to appeal, and moving on to the next destination, where the cycle began again. It became very repetitious. In between, there would be interludes showing facets of Moslem culture or nature metaphors featuring wild animals.
Since I could not look at the screen the whole time because of my dizziness and nausea, I got confused what happened to various characters due to the episodic nature of the storytelling. How did the role of rebel leader played by Raymond Bagatsing become another one played by Sid Lucero? What was the point of having Coco Martin in a cameo? His look did not really fit into the film. I felt that was a little indulgent on the part of Mendoza.
I fully appreciate the dedicated efforts of cast and crew in filming in such obviously difficult conditions. However, the final product felt unwieldy and overstuffed. It seemed like they did not want any shot to end up on the cutting floor. The subject matter is heavy enough, the senses need not have been assaulted any much more by the excessively shaky camera and the very loud explosions! I know Mendoza was most likely going for added realism for us to immerse into the hostage experience, but I feel these vertiginous visual and sound effects should have been reigned in in kinder consideration to the comfort of the viewing audience.
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