Opening with a montage of faces, scenes, and sounds of Manila scored by street children rapping about street life, Lawrence Fajardo's Amok immediately captures opposing yet strangely coexisting facets of city life, disconnect and the scarceness of distance.
The film is set in one very specific location in Manila. The EDSA-Pasay Rotonda, situated in the middle of two of EDSA and Taft, two of the busiest streets in Manila, has the unique feature of being several levels of urban madness. The intersecting streets could barely accommodate the volume of traffic, worsened by passenger jeepneys and buses that cruise the street barely an inch from the next vehicle without crashing. The sidewalk is equally busy with pedestrians dodging other pedestrians, sidewalk vendors, their patrons, and other obstructions to walking traffic. Then there are the walkways above ground, connecting the areas in EDSA-Pasay Rotonda that are separated by two rivers of overheating automobiles and their overheating drivers. Above the walkways is the light rail track, the only fixture of predictability in that hotspot. The buildings surrounding the streets are structures providing privacy to the most private of acts.
The characters Fajardo and screenwriter John Bedia conjure probably have elaborate live stories. However, the film does not dwell too much in their stories, showing only fragments of lives limited by time and space. A father (Noni Buencamino) and his son discuss the latter's basketball dreams while waiting for the bus. A sidewalk vendor (Patricia Ysmael) tends to both the food she's selling to passers-by and her precocious daughter. A forgotten stuntman (Mark Gil) hangs on to the little that remains of his former action star physique and masculinity and fucks a prostitute who turns out to be both less and more than what he expected.
Stuck in horrendous traffic, a driver (Archi Adamos) tries to air his thoughts on the family affairs of his impatient employer (Lui Manansala), who is also his sister. An irate taxi driver reaches his boiling point when a gay talent scout and his ward ride his taxi. A former police official (Efren Reyes, Jr.) meets with an elderly woman (Ermie Concepcion) to plan the burning of a squatter colony nearby. In one of the sidestreets, a game of poorman's pool (where instead of balls, bottle caps are used) played by a trio of street folks (Dido dela Paz and Gary Lim), heated by jeers, cheers, and bruised egos, is arriving at an unexpected finish, a finish that would obliterate the disconnect and any remaining distance among the thousands of people in the EDSA-Pasay Rotonda that hot afternoon.
The film is directed with meticulousness and discipline, moving from one character to another with commendable restraint in not telling too much and not showing too much, effectively teasing the audience of the predictable but still surprising havoc that is quietly being orchestrated by the elements at play in that time-bomb of a place. Fajardo peppers the film with delectable details, a bit of visual wit here and there, a nuanced shot, and those gems of subtle humor in the dialogue. Louie Quirino's precise cinematography communicates the sweltering heat that seems to demonize humanity in the anarchic setting. The film uses the city's noise as soundtrack, creating an uneasy atmosphere of spontaneity that complements the film's story and theme.
Fajardo, after patiently mapping the lives of strangers with admirable clarity and technical proficiency, concludes the film, measuring the extensive scope of a random act of violence. More than the obvious tragedy, the ending encompasses various other things like comedy, anger, fear, forgiveness, and a sudden second chance at fame. Amok is without a doubt, chaos in astoundingly consummate order.
(Cross-published in Lessons from the School of Inattention.)