In the fine tradition of Picnic at Hanging Rock comes the gorgeously rendered and profoundly understated Matangtubig. The film's original Filipino title is actually the name of the village at the heart of the story, an anonymous little place located both in the jungle and on the edge of the ocean. It has the strange honour of being the only spot in the country to have reportedly a zero crime rate - what that means is definitely debatable though. And this is in spite of the seedy little bar that hosts all comers - on duty cops included.
All of this serenity comes crashing to a halt when two girls are kidnapped on a lonely bridge. One is murdered, the other remains missing. The essence of any municipality is altered forever when something like this happens, and the film is intent on articulating this in subtle cinematic ways.
Director Jet Leyco is obviously a fan, possibly even an acolyte of Thailand's surreal auteur, Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Cemetery of Splendor, Tropical Malady). Leyco uses precise framing, long takes, and dense, naturalistic sound design to create esoteric moods and muted emotions. Do not look for music or narrative propulsion to aid the viewing experience though. Be warned that that 88 minutes is going to feel more like 2 hours when these crutches are removed from making a movie. It is worth leaning in and bearing through the often soporific pacing, however, because this is refined and elegant filmmaking.
The town is on the verge of its annual 'Fiesta' festival, and the politicians, the media and other snooping bystanders throw the rhythms and the sanctity of its sleepy rural atmosphere completely out of sort. The weather is uncooperative and stormy and the region is nowhere near equipped (in tools or talent) to investigate a crime of this sort. The mother of the dead child refuses an autopsy because it lacks dignity for her daughter. Lines of searchers scour the jungle for clues. Everyone suspects that somebody knows something, but nobody wants to talk to the police because everyone knows everyone.
Externally, politicians at every level showboat for the eager news cameras, and reporters concoct narratives whole-cloth from whips of rumours. My favourite the station called Rondaclock - certainly the CNN of the Philippines needing to fill 24 hours with single-story content, replete with pushy, bland field reporter who is mysteriously 'eaten' by the jungle in broad daylight, perhaps for crimes of banality.
The temptation when doing a standard 'missing or murdered girl' movie is to get as procedural (and lurid) as possible. Matangtubig takes the opposite approach: it is sedately observational. It finds tensions in quiet scenes, and contemplates the human paradoxes by precise, often humourous, framing. At one point the Fiesta parade of revellers and musicians and the funeral procession of mourners meet at the lone intersection in town. It is morbidly funny to see the police struggle to direct the foot traffic while the camera looks on with a kind of implicit melancholy.
The movie even shows us the actual crime being committed in the opening shot, which is quite the rarity in this sort of puzzle-box mystery. It only serves to create further questions, not answers. Each scene in the film, often a single take, is its own story in miniature, all of the pieces add up in the end, sort of, and not in easy ways.
As is often the result of crimes like this, the police investigation drags on for months and the case and clues go cold. A distinct, single two-second shot shows a 'missing persons' poster aged and thracked with graffiti. It is the most succinct image I have ever seen to articulate this, and frankly I am surprised it has not turned up in films of this kind before.
Matangtubig is confidently mounted with artistry and grace. It demonstrates that often horrible things happen and while the parties at the centre of it hope for answers, the rest of society is only looking for a way to move on. It is a horrible, painful, truth demonstrated in eerie, beautiful ways. If you like cinematic table set with Lynchian entree garnished with a soupçon of Repo Man, served in an art-house Thailand fashion, well your pleasure awaits in a small dive-bar on the edge of the Philippines rainforest, where as they say, a storm is coming.