Cinema One 2014 Review: Dodo Dayao's VIOLATOR Is A Masterful Exercise In Mounting Dread

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Cinema One 2014 Review: Dodo Dayao's VIOLATOR Is A Masterful Exercise In Mounting Dread
A storm is coming and its bringing with it to Manila a rapidly escalating sense of dread. There would be panic, perhaps, were there any outlet for such an emotion but with the city on lockdown as water levels rise there is simply no opportunity for such a thing. Instead it brings with it anxiety of a sweaty, feral intensity and the sense that the entire city is simply stewing in its own sins and that those sins will soon consume all.

Filipino blogger and critic Dodo Dayao makes his feature debut with Violator, a gorgeously executed and tightly controlled exercise in religious dread. It is a film that takes very seriously the notion that evil is all around and within us. Like Brillante Mendoza's Sapi it takes as its starting point the idea that the typhoons that pound the Philippine coastline bring with them a rise in demonic activity and it embraces that premise with utter sincerity, playing it out to ghastly intimate conclusions.

Violator begins as a series of portraits, snapshots of various seemingly disconnected people scattered throughout the city. There's the young couple meeting for a smoke break. The pregnant school teacher anticipating the arrival of her child. The police officer diagnosed with terminal cancer. It's the sort of thing you expect from developing world art film, really, a social realist portrait of a broad cross section of society and culture but Dayao's aims are quite different and he quickly warps and twists each of these scenarios to his own ends, delivering a series of increasingly unsettling and outright shocking denouements as connections - both thematic and narrative - slowly emerge until everything intertwines in the confines of an isolated police station where officers have just taken into custody a teenage boy who may very well be the Devil himself.

Dayao's technical ability is simply astounding, every sequence beautifully staged and executed with an almost clinical efficiency that gives his themes of isolation and despair additional heft. It's not unlike the effect of watching Kurosawa Kiyoshi's Kairo for the first time but colder even, and alternately both more abstract and more visceral which appears to be contradictory, I know, and yet it's true. Dayao pulls stellar performances from his entire cast, all of whom seem to share the director's confidence and sense of restraint, the entire picture having a sense of exactly how much is enough and the control to stop at that point.

While Dayao takes his time to delve into the connections between stories in the opening half - and some are never firmly linked in a narrative sense - each individual vignette is executed with enough precision to stand on its own, each with its own fully realized set of characters and particular knife to twist, so that the audience remains engaged as the thematic elements weave together and bolster one another to create a whole significantly greater than the sum of the parts.

A remarkable debut feature, Violator took home the Best Picture prize at the just completed Cinema One Originals festival in the Philippines and it's not hard at all to see why. Dayao is a potent, forceful new voice who has emerged seemingly fully formed. Hopefully this is the first of many.

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