There is no denying that Joaquin Valdes' Dagim (Raincloud) is a visually exceptional film. Despite the film's preoccupation with grime and gore, the film manages to sustain an aesthetic style that is hardly obnoxious but is more often than not quite alluring. The film's visualizations of desolation that we can only surmise from what Valdes hints at as a product of the heavy military presence in the area attempt to complement the angst-ridden mood of the story of two brothers (Martin del Rosario and Samuel Quintana) who discover a suspicious band of individuals whose anarchist ideology is more than telling of their peculiar lifestyle. Stylized almost to the point of confusion, the film can be best described as a collage of striking images stitched together to service a story that could have worked better with more restraint, more meaningful simplicity.
Dagim feels superficial. It's unfortunate, really. What the film is trying to say or at least from what could be gathered from the several snippets of beautified ugliness is intriguing. Its revisionist interpretation of the aswang, relating monstrosity to a philosophy of abandoning the false trappings of civilization and order to reveal humans as true monsters, has potential for something more enduring and more troubling than the posturing that the film has heavily invested on. Other than its curiously sympathetic leader (Marc Abaya) and maybe the band's mysteriously captivating belle (Rita Iringan), the band is composed of members who are nothing more than loud and attention-grabbing eccentrics and punks. They are hardly individuals whose belief in a skewed philosophy has forced them to abandon the comforts of normal existence for a monstrous lifestyle. Their anachronistic fashion sense and tacked-on attitude add more to the superficiality of the entire exercise than to the merits of the film's attempts at horror.
Of course, Dagim's horror is of course more conceptual than functional. Although there are overt attempts at utilizing gore and atmospheric mood-setting to scare or at least unsettle, Valdes relies mostly on his concept to ground his horror, depending on the idea that the terrorizing monsters of myth and folklore are as real and palpable as any ordinary person who has completely lost hope on social institutions. Sadly, the film's fictional setting, a nowhereland whose geography and history is sorely unexplained, filters any inkling of connection between viewer and film. Thus, the film, unlike Richard Somes' Yanggaw (Affliction, 2008), another revisionist tale of the aswang mythos whose use of the Ilonggo language and whose careful depictions of local culture enhance the horror by grounding it on some semblance of reality, locates itself in an under-realized approximation of any existing Filipino setting.
Valdes peppers his film with little details, that of the little brother and his habit of lighting his flashlight in the middle of the night, or the eccentricities of the mysterious girl during the siblings' initial encounter with her, or the madwoman wildly mourning outside the siblings' humble hut one morning. These details are supposed to logically create the apt atmosphere for the intended horror, just enough of the quirk and the strangeness to skew the seemingly normal to produce unease. These details unfortunately fail to cohere with everything else.
Despite all these reservations, the promise of the talent involved in the film cannot be ignored. Perhaps it is that promise that preempted the film's incoherence. Dagim certainly feels like a work of a director that is trying too hard, trying too much. While Valdes cannot seem to unify style with substance, creating a product that is grossly uneven, he persists as a very efficient orchestrator of the capabilities and proficiencies of the several talented craftsmen and artists under his control. Maybe, given time, given experience, given focus, Valdes can make the film where his lofty technical ambitions add to instead of deviate from his loftier intentions.
(Cross-published in Lessons from the School of Inattention.)