‘Liwanag sa Dilim’ Review: Fun when it wants to be
Niko (Jake Vargas) has a bit of a hero syndrome. We first see him in an arcade, getting into a fight with bullies who are preying on a young lady who was just enjoying herself playing videogames all by her lonesome.
When confronted by his perpetually stressed mother (Sunshine Cruz), he simply says that he just has to do it, especially if the victim is a woman, because it reminds him of how his father maltreats his mother.
So basically, Niko is the epitome of modern-day chivalry. He is this self-proclaimed knight to rid the world of oppressors of damsels in distress.
The conceit of Richard Somes’ Liwanag sa Dilim is that it pits this particular teenager with an otherworldly villain who exemplifies everything that he has sworn to protect.
In the town of Estancia where Niko takes temporary refuge while his mother is ironing out her legal woes, he is faced with a murder mystery, the primary suspect of which is an enigmatic woman (Sarah Lahbati) living in the town’s margins.
Liwanag sa Dilim wraps what essentially is a predictable horror story around the coming-of-age of a brooding city kid who is unwillingly spirited away to an unfamiliar provincial setting. Along the way, he gets acquainted with friends, cowardly Digul (Igi Boy Flores) and spritely Viola (Bea Binene), who are swayed into his quest for maturity.
Fun with nostalgia
Somes’ previous works have always been grounded on some sort of nostalgia for genres that have been sadly forgotten in this age of rom-coms and crass comedies.
Ang Lihim ng San Joaquin, an episode in Shake, Rattle & Roll 2k5 (2005) mixes a plot snatched from a previous episode of the popular franchise with horror elements that can be traced back to the era of silent films. Ishmael (2010) is reminiscent of the outrageous action flicks of the ‘80s, where iconic Lito Lapid and Ramon Revilla show off their physically impossible but undoubtedly cool fighting moves.
It is therefore expected that Somes peppers Liwanag sa Dilim, with tropes borrowed from pubescent adventures like Richard Donner’s The Goonies (1985) or Peque Gallaga’s Magic Temple (1996). The film has a little bit of romance, slivers of teenage turmoil, horror, tension, fantasy, and a wallop of enjoyable exaggeration.
Liwanag sa Dilim is not as far-reaching, probably limited by budgetary and logistical constraints, but it at least retains the distinct feel of marrying the joyful pains of growing up with wide-eyed wonder.
Sadly, the film’s pitch-perfect mood is obscured by a confusing and convoluted plot. The story’s preoccupation with a string of kidnappings and murders is diluted by a certain lack of urgency for all of its characters.
The mystery of who is responsible for the crimes has an obvious solution, but none of the characters seems equipped with enough common sense to tie things together.
Sure, the primary monster’s a changeling, transforming from oft-victimized lady during the day and a crimson-robed witch with superhuman strength at night.
The conceit however is betrayed by the alarming absence of sensuality. The monster’s only a pretty picture, but any link between her and those she’s trying to confuse is kept sterile and sanitized.
The film is fun when it wants to be. Vargas, Binene, and Flores are all capable young actors, whose gimmicks and interactions are enough to keep the rickety story together.
Somes, on the other hand, is wildly imaginative, ably stitching together an entertaining horror-adventure hybrid something that is weirdly inspired by a popular Rivermaya hit.
Liwanag sa Dilim misses that single thread to make it a truly indelible experience. It is just sorely sexless to be an effective coming-of-age film, overly reliant on a subpar plot and nostalgia, but not on the essentials of what urges boys to grow up to be men. – Rappler.com
Francis Joseph Cruz litigates for a living and writes about cinema for fun. The first Filipino movie he saw in the theaters was Carlo J. Caparas’ 'Tirad Pass.' Since then, he’s been on a mission to find better memories with Philippine cinema. Profile photo by Fatcat Studios