Wincy Ong's first film feels like one all right, but not in the sense that it comes together crudely as if under the nervy thumb of some self-entitled film school amateur groping sloppily for a clue and passing it off as style. He's put in the hours, Wincy, directing a tonnage of music videos and a television show before this. And all that toil shows in the restraint and temperament, in the shape and sheen, of the film, San Lazaro.
No, it's more in the way it seems to be organized around the twin notions of this being something he'd been waiting and wanting to do for so long and that the next one may not be as easy to come by, and the way he leaves nothing out, throwing in what feels like the entire filmography in his head, as if they've been pent-up and gestating all these years (and maybe they have), as if he might never get the chance and who knows if he will. But by cleverly parsing them out as flashbacks, flashbacks that frankly have far more vigor and crackle and weirdness than the one-note, present-day through-line it all hangs on and feeds, he calms down the tendency of everything to violently shift tones. It does still buckle a little here and there, but mostly it fills out the characters and the piece, giving both density and cartilage.
San Lazaro is a no-brainer: a horror slash road movie slash buddy comedy. Pitched somewhere between Chito Roño and Edgar Wright, albeit with little of the former's visual acumen (but thankfully even less of the latter's slavish and annoying geekiness). And prone as these things are to the self-referential hubris of such geeky impulses, its first grace note is in how all of that is reined in to zero, how it takes the time to build its own universe, contained everything there, and not run to some pop culture nod or in-joke for comfort every time things get iffy even Ely Buendia's too-brief cameo is sharply hewn, doesn't feel extraneous nor like a wink, probably could fork off into a subplot with more legs than the plot on top.
It's a spindly one, such as it is, that plot on top, with Wincy himself multitasking as a flighty slacker roped in to help old high school classmate Ramon Bautista drive his possibly demonically possessed brother to the eponymous small town of the title. If it comes on like those funny-scary-but-neither-funny-nor-scary episodes they front-load every Shake Rattle and Rollepisode with, know that this is not as ineptly realized and is actually funny, if not as given over to the funny as you'd want.
Wincy and Ramon do play their odd coupling with all the chemistry and dynamics, the thrust and parry if you will, of the stalwart comedy duos, from the Dolphy and Panchitos to the Ogie and Michael Vs to the Maverick and Ariels. Sure, the volume never cranks up above room tone, the repartee never gets as spry nor as gregarious. Wincy's stoic foil and Ramon's wacky lout never quite bust loose, and everything feels a little held back. But if nothing else, this measure of sobriety helps add brunt to the twist near the end, which isn't much if we go by Shyamalan, but is all the more effective out of how little fuss is whipped up about it. There's a subtler, less fussy twist in the epilogue that might shark under your radar if you so much as blink, and that gets under my skin a bit more. San Lazaro is not much but not bad, a genre mash-up with much pop torque and a load of fun. But if Wincy's next film sustains the creepy poignancy of that last line, San Lazaro might smack of an overexcited thesis film in comparison.
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