Filipino movies

‘Pula’ review: Dreary, painfully confounding crime drama

Lé Baltar

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‘Pula’ review: Dreary, painfully confounding crime drama
Brillante Mendoza's 'Pula' starring Coco Martin, which is now part of Netflix’s catalogue, is frustratingly unimaginative

This piece contains plot spoilers and discussions about rape. Reader discretion is advised.

Brillante Mendoza, as his audience knows by now, isn’t one to shy away from images of violence, let alone cushion the discomfort it creates. If anything, the director’s oeuvre is largely shaped by punishing conversations about morally tinted terrains that exhibit life in all its complexities and cruelties. 

Consider Serbis (2008) and Kinatay (2009), which both demonstrate the brilliance of a young Coco Martin, as well as Foster Child (2007) and Ma’ Rosa (2016), best remembered for terrific acting from its leads, Cherry Pie Picache and the late Jaclyn Jose, respectively. Flawed as they are, these films manage to access something meaningful about their dystopia — insights that are nowhere to be found in Mendoza’s later projects. 

Least of all is his recent film, Pula, which is now part of Netflix’s catalogue. The film marks the reunion of Mendoza and Martin, a collaboration that began in Masahista (2005), the former’s directorial debut. It’s not far-fetched to say that this is Mendoza trying to invoke the screen persona that has come to define Martin’s work early in his career, perhaps his best.

Like its single-word, barely appealing title, Pula also has a landscape replete with omens: skies and oceans turning red, dark creatures taking over a girl’s body, torrential rains, a baleful snake, and a lost soul eager to seek retribution. Reinforcing this mood thoroughly is how the film treats its visuals, largely steeped in grainy, washed-out state that makes the characters look so pale at times. At others, the visual rendering allows the film’s setting – a remote, deeply religious town – to register like a barren tract of flatland, patiently waiting for something to happen. No wonder, then, that this crime drama demands a ton of patience from its viewers.

For one, Pula takes plenty of time setting things up, devoting its first 30 minutes to introducing a host of characters but at the same time downplaying particular details that make them interesting, or at least seem worthy of close attention. As the plot uncoils, it even gets harder to rally behind such characters for writer Reynold Giba steers clear of the stakes that buttress their presence. By this, I mean not merely out of necessity but rather how they contribute to broader arguments the film peddles, if any.

At the center of the story is Daniel Faraon (Martin), a cop who seemingly leads a nondescript life with his two kids and wife Magda (Julia Montes, who had her comeback on the big screen in last year’s Five Breakups and a Romance), a teacher in the local school. Then there’s the faith healer (Erlinda Villalobos); the young couple Tricia (Christine Bermas) and Jeff (Vince Rillon) prepping to elope; Tricia’s parents, frequent churchgoers Elena (Lotlot de Leon) and Canor (Allan Paule); and local police chief Raymond (Raymart Santiago), who has an affair with Magda. 

As far as directorial aesthetics are concerned, Mendoza’s camerawork here isn’t as invasive or unsophisticated as in his previous works, but still voyeuristic at some point. What is rather odd is that the film in many ways feels skeptical of its own framing. It cannot quite put its finger on whether it wants to be a procedural, an exploration of the supernatural, a morality tale, or a revenge thriller, which not only makes its entirety so confounding but also exposes its rickety design. It is studded with plot points that feel vacuous and lead us nowhere, punctuated by scenes of perpetual praying or foreboding images of deluge, as if to rub its metaphor in. Like, alright, we get it!

Maybe at some point the filmmaker might provide a perceptive look into why the characters behave the way they do, or deeper analysis of the subject it tries so hard to interrogate, instead of merely asserting what happens next, instead of relying on empty shocks. Nothing of the sort. Mendoza barely offers reflection or questions that aim to provoke at the minimum.

Clearly Mendoza strives only for effect, most evident of which is the place of rape in the film’s plotting. This isn’t to say that cinema should eschew depictions of rape or the very trauma it carries altogether. This detail in the film cries out for critical attention, largely because gone are the days that filmmakers can rehash rape like worn-out tropes meant to service shock value. 

In this case, it is Daniel who defiles Tricia, a teenage girl, after the latter changes her mind about eloping with Jeff. Daniel, in a more wicked scene, continues to mishandle the body even when it’s already lifeless. What’s disconcerting about this detail is how the film, in its insistence to toy with its mystical aspects, ties what the rapist does to the doing of the devil, hence trivializing the vile act altogether. For a host of reasons, it does feel like rape is only there as a device to trigger Martin’s character to self-destruct. And if the point of this storyline is to tell us that rape is wrong and criminal, I’m not too sure, in 2024, that it offers anything decent human beings are not already aware of.

It certainly doesn’t make things better that the film feels the urge to expose Bermas’s front, in scenes prior to and after the rape, even when it’s totally unnecessary. Martin, meanwhile, cannot seem to escape the dramatic inflections that parallels his work in television: doe-eyed, gritted teeth, tongue slightly sticking out, and furrowed eyebrows. It’s a technique that takes us out of tense, pivotal moments, precisely because it’s been the same image of Martin that we’ve seen for years, character after character.

Essentially, Pula is a film about deceptions, and not the good kind. The narrative offers us a sense of movement, even when it can barely take a step. It tricks us into thinking that it has anything substantial to say about its bleak world, about rape, even when it refuses to probe further into its very subject. It is frustratingly unimaginative.

Of course, Mendoza escalates the friction of said rape into a full-blown fantasy of violence, which sees the abuser go berserk and commit a killing spree in broad daylight that is by turns targeted and random, for he knows that there’s no undoing what he has done, no second chances. In the process, he murders his wife, alongside the policewoman who pieces the evidence against him. As in real life, it is often the women who get violated. –

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Lé Baltar

Lé Baltar is a Manila-based freelance journalist and film critic for Rappler. Currently serving as secretary of the Society of Filipino Film Reviewers (SFFR), Lé has also written for CNN Philippines Life, PhilSTAR Life, VICE Asia, Young STAR Philippines, among other publications. She is a fellow of the first QCinema International Film Festival Critics Lab.