If Wincy Ong's San Lazaro were a student in a classroom full of recent films from the Philippines, which necessarily includes important works from Lav Diaz, Raya Martin and Brillante Mendoza, it would probably be sitting in the back, an unnoticeable weirdo among the overachievers and underachievers that fill the room. It is a film that does not seem to belong to the room, given that it is inherently oblivious to anything and everything that is supposed to be pertinent to the so-called new wave in Philippine cinema, except to the irreverence and humor that persists in the cinema even amidst its usual heft and seriousness.
It is not that the film lacks ambition or rejects relevance or that ambition and relevance are essential elements of films. San Lazaro disguises itself as horror yet it is most apparent that its primary purpose is not to shock or scare. It is intriguingly unhinged, with characters that are grounded more on humorous illogic than common sense. In a way, Ong has crafted a film that is reminiscent of David Lynch's works, except that it is fuelled by artificial uppers instead of the usual dreams, nightmares and other insanity-induced things. There's probably a tad more self-conscious wit and weirdness than needed, but it never crosses-over to being something that is more annoying or frustrating than entertaining.
The story's simple enough. Sigfried (Ong), a random loser who has contented himself by learning useless skills from YouTube, is suddenly plucked from his uneventful existence by Limuel (Ramon Bautista), his previous classmate whom he has not communicated with since their school days, to bring Limuel's brother (Nicco Manalo), who seems to be possessed by some sort of evil spirit, to his uncle (Allan Forte), a singing exorcist, in the faraway town of San Lazaro. It's basically a road movie, peppered with details that make it delightfully off-tangent and curiously engaging.
Ong and Bautista's odd coupling undoubtedly highlights the experience. It's a grand balancing act they admirably commit to. Wearing sheens of fantabulous seriousness, the two prance around in the obviously made-up world where everything is not exactly topsy-turvy but deliciously creeping its way there. There is always that sense that everything is an inside joke, yet Ong and Bautista are formidable in their ploy, resulting in cautious giggles. The other characters that populate that world are mostly oddballs and other contrivances, teasing the audience of many more stories that have not been told, and seemingly conspirators with Ong and Bautista in what could either be a well-orchestrated prank or a product of tilted genius.
(Cross-published in Lessons from the School of Inattention.)