Brillante Mendoza’s ‘Sapi:’ Half-hearted horror

Zig Marasigan

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'Sapi' suffers from its own demons. It is a film cursed with a lack of cohesion, and half-hearted direction

DISPASSIONATE HORROR. A film as flawed as "Sapi" may be the actual work of the devil. Photo from the film's Facebook

MANILA, Philippines – The SBN news team is possessed with a different kind of demon. Their devil is the kind obsessed with ratings and recognition. It is a demon that isn’t exorcised by archaic rites and elaborate rituals. Their possession is much graver.

But Brilliante Mendoza’s “Sapi” suffers from its own demons. It is a film cursed with a lack of cohesion, and half-hearted direction. These are choice words for a filmmaker as acclaimed as Mendoza, but a film as flawed as “Sapi” may be the actual work of the devil.

The film follows a news team tasked with covering the mass possessions spreading across Metro Manila. The backdrop is the unending barrage of typhoons and floods that have come to plague the capital. But the team’s concerns are elsewhere, particularly in the homes of the possessed and the cursed. The SBN crew competes head on with rival news network PBC, but they are beaten handily at every turn.

With ratings dwindling, producer Meryll Flores (Meryll Soriano) and field reporter Dennis Marquez (Dennis Trillio) decide to pay off rival cameraman Baron Valdez (Baron Geisler) for footage of a local exorcism. When the segment airs, it reaps record breaking numbers, but not without consequences. 

A dispassionate horror story

“Sapi” aims to explore horror through the supposedly objective eyes of the media. But we quickly realize that the media’s intentions are as tainted as the possessions they hope to expose. In the same way, “Sapi” becomes its own horror story.

The film’s uninteresting characters and detached story leave “Sapi” barren and lifeless. Tension is quickly dissipated as audiences are forced to wade through one tedious scene after the next. Mendoza’s premise teases a fascinating story, but outside the cheap, predictable scare-attempt, “Sapi” never delivers on either its plot or its themes.

We are left with a figment of horror that is too tame to frighten, and too alienating to enlighten. By the tail end of “Sapi,” the film gives up on itself. It spins wildly into a discordant mishmash of fantasy and reality as the film cuts dizzyingly from one character to the next. We are never truly sure of what happens to our cursed reporters, but neither do we really care.

A story within a Story

In a way, “Sapi” isn’t so much Mendoza’s exploration of genre filmmaking as it is his exploration of reflexive cinema. We find a story within a story, woven into the near indecipherable layers of “Sapi.” But Mendoza’s intentions wither long before they are able to bear fruit. We are given but glimpses of the characters’ lives, but never enough to invest in their story.

It’s no coincidence that each of the film’s characters is named after their actual identities. It’s a subversive blurring of fact and fiction, but the exercise results in nothing enlightening or satisfying. “Sapi” struggles to make statements both personal and political, and fails at making either of them resonate.

For a filmmaker who’s made it his mission to capture the truth, Mendoza fails to mount his scenes with any convincing honesty.

Mendoza moving forward

Mendoza’s role as a filmmaker has always been more of an observer than an instigator. But the demands of “Sapi’s” story are too far away from Mendoza’s lens. While Mendoza has always found beauty in the mundane, his attempts in “Sapi” seem desperate at best. Gone is the intimate voyeur that has characterized Mendoza’s most celebrated works, in place is a disinterested onlooker simply passing the time.

It’s a far cry from Mendoza’s own “Thy Womb,” arguably the best entry to come out of last year’s Metro Manila Film Festival. In “Thy Womb,” we witness the birth of a child. Nora Aunor, the midwife, cradles the newborn; umbilical cord still hanging from his moist belly. With humbled envy, Aunor reluctantly returns the child to his rightful mother.

In contrast, we watch Meryll Soriano give birth to a snake in “Sapi.” She squirms uneasily in her bed, not quite asleep, and not quite dreaming. But when the snake finally pushes out of her body, we feel little more than shock and disgust. While the former scene is tender and poignant, the latter feels gratuitous, superfluous and heartless.

Given Mendoza’s notable track record, one can only hope that “Sapi” is just a bad blip in his growing filmography. If it isn’t, then Mendoza would have a true horror story in his hands. 

Watch the ‘Sapi’ trailer here:

Zig Marasigan

Zig Marasigan is a freelance screenwriter and director who believes that cinema is the cure for cancer. Follow him on twitter at @zigmarasigan.

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