Violator reviewed as part of the ‘0th’ Edition of the London East Asian Film Festival (LEAFF 2015)
It is the first word uttered in Dodo Dayao’s feature debut Violator – and although aging Benito Alano (Joel Lemangan) is talking about reflux from his dyspeptic belly, the word is also an apt introduction to the film’s lysergic lifting of the veil from everyday reality. Even as scenes here tend to be shot wide and in long takes, in a style associated with both ‘slow cinema’ and naturalism, here the unnatural and the otherworldly keep intruding. Even the bespectacled woman (Elizabeth Oropeca) sitting opposite Benito in that opening scene and frowning upon his desire to smoke a cigarette (vetoed by his doctor) will turn out to be the ghost of his wife (who died two years earlier). Benito is a man in crisis: diagnosed with lung cancer, he is a once ‘legendary supercop’ now in terminal decline, tortured on the inside and turning rapidly from his mother’s Catholic faith.
Benito’s crisis is the crux to which all this film’s interrogative themes will eventually be nailed – but before that, a series of disjointed, episodic vignettes will introduce us, surreally, to the human impact of an approaching storm that might just herald the End of Days. After calmly chatting with a colleague, an office worker strips naked and throws herself from a building’s rooftop. Policeman Lukas Manabat (Anthony Falcon) has sex with his girlfriend Millie (Julia Enriquez) beneath an indifferent portrait of Mary (and before the eyes of Millie’s young son from a previous relationship), but cannot quite commit to marriage.
In her classroom, a pregnant teacher finds the body of a child in a pig’s mask. His advancement under a cloud after a past indiscretion, corrupt police officer Gilberto Pring (Victor Neri) drinks and does very bad things with some colleagues (one of whom tells Pring, “To beat the devil, sometimes you have to be a devil too”). Two men walk to an isolated spot outside Manila to carry out a willingly self-destructive auto-da-fé to which they feel they have been “called”. And silent, flickering VHS footage traces a cult community’s shift from happy clappy to Jonestown sinister.
If all these disturbing fragments point to a coming apocalypse, whether moral, biblical or cosmic, then the film’s second half offers a single (if equally confounding) narrative, now unified by time and place. During a torrentialdownpour and rising floodwaters, Benito and Lukas find themselves cut off in a police station with conscience-haunted janitor Mang Vic (Andy Bais) and good civilian Gabriel Ragas (RK Bagatsing), when Pring hauls in a peculiar young troublemaker, Nathan Winston Payumo (Timothy Mabalot), who is said to be possessed. Over this one long night of the soul, lights will flicker, ghosts will resurface, and the devil will out.
Here, the film comes closest to recognisable genre – and more particularly to the beleaguered station in John Carpenter’s 1976 Assault on Precinct 13 (the location in Violator is expressly ‘Precinct 13’) or to the supernatural-cum-psychological constabulary infiltrations of Anthony DiBlasi’s recent Last Shift (2014). Yet there is something in Dayao’s aloof, blank-eyed approach to his characters’ ethical dilemmas and spiritual meltdowns that elevates Violator to new heights of eerie unease. Presenting human existence as a zero-sum game, the film ends on a binary note of diabolical ambiguity, and might just, in its unsettling matter-of-factness and queasy sound design, leave you, like Benito, with an almighty gut-ache. Either way, Dayao is a singular new (Tagalog) voice in the outer limits of both horror and the ‘cult’ movie.
© Anton Bitel