Review: Richard Somes' CORAZON: ANG UNANG ASWANG
In Ang Lihim ng San Joaquin (The Secret of San Joaquin), Richard Somes' episode in Shake, Rattle and Roll 2k5 (Uro dela Cruz, Rico Maria Ilarde, Somes, 2005), he makes use of popular aswang lore in telling the story of a man and his pregnant wife who find themselves trapped in a town of aswang craving for fresh meat. Although narratively straightforward and seemingly devoid of any sudden twists and turns that usually mark the horror films that fare well in the box office, Somes' short succeeds in infusing certain techniques and styles borrowed from silent films, resulting in an experience that is not only comfortingly familiar, especially for those who grew up horrified by the many cinematic reincarnations of the local monsters, but also fresh, especially if pitted against the films that was produced that year from both from mainstream studios and the growing independent scene.
Unshackled by the confines of commercialism, Somes expanded the aswang story with Yanggaw (Affliction, 2008). Freed from the sole instruction of capitalist studios to simply terrify and scare, Somes distances the aswang from the territory of horror, creating a story that turns the folklore into an allegory of some socially pertinent issue. In the film, Somes explores the dysfunctions of a provincial family as they witness the transformation of one of its members into an aswang after returning from the city where she worked as a housemaid. While Somes still infuses the film with horror tropes, the film is more inclined to disturb with its declarations of the reality of humanity's innate monstrosity than imagined monstrosities lurking amongst what is truly real. In a sense, Somes makes use of myths and folktales and the fascination and terror they inevitably manufacture to conjure unspoken truths about the human psyche.
Corazon: Ang Unang Aswang (Corazon: The First Aswang) seems to be borne out of the same inspiration that spawned Yanggaw. Somes stretches the aswang lore further by reimagining the very source of the mythical monster's existence. Set in an unnamed hacienda after the second World War, the film situates the beginnings of the aswang within an atmosphere of faith and paranoia brought about by war. The hacienda owner's plan of mortgaging the land has spawned much suspicion within the community. A madwoman, living in the fringes of the hacienda and rumored to have eaten dead people to absorb their powers while fighting during the war, is met with spite and disgust. Untrusting of outsiders and social deviants, the townspeople greet anything and everything that disturbs their families and their newly found peace with suspicion and violence.
Corazon (a surprisingly effective Erich Gonzalez), a woman who is also victimized by the townspeople's intolerance because of her questionable roots, is fortunate to be married to Daniel (Derek Ramsay), who is mostly respected by everyone. In their desire to have a child, Corazon decides to seek the advice of a faith healer who suggests that she bears the sacrifice of holding a pilgrimage for the patron saint of fertility. When she suddenly becomes pregnant only to lose the child to miscarriage, she decides to take revenge on the faith she heavily relied on, and sought refuge in the forests, attacking every child who comes her way as a way of resentment towards the religion she perceived to have played with her legitimate desire and hope.
Corazon: Ang Unang Aswang is essentially a grandiose romance draped in horror trappings. Corazon and Daniel's intense love, like most other loves made famous in literature and film, is pitted against forces that would naturally pull the weakest of lovers apart. Somes, in his endeavor to keep the film within his goal to revise local folklore, injects notions of perversions, of a woman in love who succumbs to murdering children and eating their flesh out of insanity and becomes the very first aswang. Unfortunately, the story's attempt to have its audience believe the romance while becoming shocked by the myriad of atrocities committed by both the lovers and the townspeople judging them fails. In the end, everything feel's contrived and downright ridiculous, betraying whatever statement the film seems to forward regarding the monstrosities human intolerance can create.
Handsomely produced, with sets apparently built from scratch instead of resourcefully put up, the film has a feel of a manufactured blockbuster. However, the ingenuity of its storytelling, of utilizing traditional horror concepts to forward romantic ends, belongs beyond the realm of the safety dictated by commercial filmmaking. While the attempted convergence is laudable, the film ultimately suffers from being both confused and confusing. While the material challenges genre conventions that are strictly followed by their practitioners, it still decides to spoonfeed its audience with the use of voice-over narrations, no matter how illogical and needless they are. It mixes beautiful images of the countryside and understandably drab interiors of the villagers' huts and bungalows. In the end, the film just seems to be trapped right there in the middle of various contrasting elements, making it somewhat of a puzzling anomaly whose failures are inevitably more intriguing than its successes.
(Cross-published in Lessons from the School of Inattention.)