Cities have a boiling point. Like the 'Summer of Sam' in New York, or the Rodney King incident and fallout in Los Angeles, the individual people, each a tiny molecule of activity, can bump into one another slowly, raising the temperature, the kinetic energy, of a pocket to the point where the mounting pressure (an engine's overworked radiator) will have to find some sort of release. So goes a particularly busy intersection in Pasay City, a market and subway intersection located inside metro Manilla, the capital of the Philippines. Here director Lawrence Fajardo's intimate and deliberate camera documents the nooks and crannys (and crooks and trannys) in Amok. With patience in the storytelling and the raw talent of an ensemble cast, he delivers, in the tradition of Magnolia and Short Cuts, a cross-section of a single poundingly hot day where petty disagreements of its myriad citizenry are perpetually on the verge of flaring into full conflagration. But first, music. Acting as a greek chorus, three boys selling boxes of matches shake their wares and rap about how rubbing together too many people in close quarters is going to cause a flare-up. It is a blunt act of foreshadowing, with all that shakin' friction and rattling match-sticks, but the song is so infectious and body-moving, against images of the busy goings on that you are immediately caught up in the thick of things.
The gamut of social strata are represented, from blind beggars and poor street vendors, to middle class folks just passing through, to semi-wealthy old ladies and mid-level gangsters caught up in their own business and money lending. An out of work Tagalog actor hires a prostitute to relieve the day, but the encounter does not go as planned. A woman and her nephew argue about money as they are stuck in traffic (everyone is metaphorically stuck in traffic), A man takes his son back home from private school where they debate his college basketball prospects, a pool shark (mohawked and innocent simultaneously) hustles in a mid-stakes game, a frustrated cabbie tries to brush of a particularly insistent customer, a woman in desperate poverty makes a deal with a gangster to burn down her apartment building for money, and a mother fights with her daughter about how to spend their meagre funds from selling BBQ meat skewers for pennies to passersby. Everyone slurps down cold drinks and wipes away the sweat and dust of the parched and clogged streets. The surprisingly clean cinematography, capturing clutter and chaos, whether in a vendor stall, a cramped apartment or the back seat of a car is stopped such that when in shadow you see the brightness and vice-versa. The film is highly focused on faces, but always lets you know that urban busyness stretches out everywhere in the background.
Content to let this collection of characters percolate using a subtle but effective non-linear temporal structure, focusing mainly on how each person's little anxieties in their daily grind contributes to the overall mood of tension; to the city and the film. Fajardo offers hints of what may come by carrying a scene right to the edge of climax at just the right second when things threaten to become too low key or purely observational. The effect of this film becomes almost unbearable in its bated breath. You as an audience member are being aggressively toyed with, but it is for your own good, and the scenery is really nice. When the violent and emotionally raw climax arrives, it is deservedly powerful mayhem after the meticulous build-up. Squeezed in there on top of everything else is a surprising amount of humour that threats to get lost in the shuffle, but actually completes the package.
The film not only offers a compelling snapshot of the urban existence, but also is incredibly humanistic in its portrayal of how easy it is to be caught up in the little dramas, those petty social disagreements that people thrive on. When bullets begin to fly, the dominoes start to topple and the karmic wheel threatens to spin off its axis, not only is there blood and fear and tragedy, but he brings love and longing back into the picture as people discover what is really important after random, immediate, loss. It being Pasay, there is also plenty of opportunity for theft and song and hustle as, within minutes, life continues ever on. Those kids are still singing that catchy song, and there is plenty of daylight left.
[On a personal note, I've been enjoying myself immensely with the Fantasia's SPOTLIGHT: FILIPINO CINEMA. Much like the Serbian sidebar served up in 2010, it is good to see the festival famous for more splattery fare and wuxia mayhem (often in the same film) has stepped up to compete with the larger festivals in terms of putting together revealing showcases of cinema from exciting, even overlooked, corners of the world.]