movie reviews

Vince Tañada’s ‘Bangkay’ review: Dead on arrival

Jason Tan Liwag
Vince Tañada’s  ‘Bangkay’ review: Dead on arrival
Vince Tañada’s Palanca award-winning play fails to translate onscreen, turning the hypnotic unraveling of a family through grief and sexual violence into an unwatchable exercise in wastefulness

The first thing they will tell you about Bangkay is that it won a Palanca Award.

Who can blame them? Never mind that the credibility of the award and the body giving it has recently been questioned by several laureates due to copyright issues and allegations of patronage politics, the Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature have been, as per the website, “the longest-running literary competition in the Philippines and is considered the gold standard in writing excellence.”

So it comes up again and again throughout the evening: stamped onto the poster taped to the press kit; brought up in every pre-show interview you hear on the red carpet; repeated by the hosts before they invite the cast forward for a group photo. Even Vince Tañada — director, star, and writer of Bangkay — takes several moments to remind us about it in the pre-show tribute to the team. “Kapag maganda yung script, wala na daw problema,” he laughs, pointing at a friend at the back. Just when you think you’ve had enough, it is embedded in the film itself — a frame that lingers a little too long before the opening scene.

But a film is more than just its script. Cinema exists, first and foremost, through its visual language – a collaboration. One only needs to check The Black List — a modern repository of what is widely considered Hollywood’s best unproduced screenplays — to find that there are many great films with terrible scripts and many terrible films with great scripts. But even then, scripts aren’t necessary. Improvisational filmmaking is a thing. Experimental cinema — such as those created by, but not limited to, Khavn de la Cruz, John Torres, and Roxlee — thrive on the assembly of images, with the narrative coming later or never at all.

On paper, Bangkay holds promise. Set in the early 1900s, the film is set within the Segismundo household as they deal with the death of their matriarch — with Don Segismundo (Tañada) growing increasingly ironfisted and violent around his daughter Isabel (Vean Olmedo), his assistant Lemuel (John Rey Rivas), the major doma Miding (Mercedes Cabral), and the younger maid Oryang (Lili Montelibano). When he begins to take out his sexual frustration on members of the household and even on cadavers he takes on as an embalmer and mortician, the members of the household are forced to either succumb or rise against the oppression.

Other writers have focused primarily on the nudity within the story, unjustly praising Tañada and mistakenly equating its daringness with creativity, their PR-loaded drivel pointing towards a skewed idea of what is considered artistically laudable. Other critics in the past have likened Bangkay (as a play) to Mike de Leon’s Kisapmata, but such tethers are superficial and weak; alike only in its subject (i.e. incest), but worlds apart in mastery and treatment. In actuality, Vince Tañada’s (Palanca award-winning) play fails to translate onscreen, turning a text known for displaying how the family unit unravels through grief and sexual violence into an unwatchable exercise in wastefulness.

At the core of this issue is its inability to take advantage of the language of cinema. From a purely technical standpoint, the execution is subpar: editing cuts to black too many times and lingers in moments when it shouldn’t, the sound design is uneven at best, and the music — a nightmare for the synesthetic — cheapens whatever emotional resonance the text carries. The product is a symphonic mess that should not go together, creating a tone that is discomforting and befuddling.

But the main sin of the material is in how it disservices its actors by failing to properly light and frame them — the blocking is flat and static, resembling a production filmed from the proscenium; the tight closeup shots blow up the actor’s faces, decapitating them and rendering their gestures invisible; the wandering shots of the production design distract from the intricate dialogue and create only half-formed explorations of space; the inconsistent lighting submerges valuable characters in darkness while unimportant ones are bathed in candlelight. It wastes the talent of its actors — particularly Cabral and Olmedo, who were fighting through the technical and narrative holes. As the film continues, it becomes increasingly apparent that Tañada and his team do not treat the camera as a scene partner — a core principle in directing.

The accumulation of these technical and artistic deficits fail to reflect the power dynamics that have shifted in the household — with the death becoming seemingly inconsequential to the story. There are inklings of themes that it intended to explore — how grief, secrecy, and desire transmogrify the human soul; how patriarchal expectations of the nuclear family can be weaponized; how sex can be used as a tool for oppression; how the ego, when left unchecked, can rot the core of Philippine society. However, whatever sharp edges the script contains is dulled by its cinematic treatment and we are left with an incomplete melodrama that says nothing about the world nor the characters operating within it.

Bangkay is not alone in this failure. Adapting theater productions into films has been historically difficult largely because its creators fail to acknowledge key differences between cinema and theater as a form. Theater invites people into a reality that demands suspension of disbelief, while film constructs a reality so that suspension of disbelief is not necessary or minimally expected from audience members. It’s the reason why it’s easy to believe Ben Platt as a teenager onstage in Dear Evan Hansen but not onscreen

Few contemporary local productions are conscious of this shift. Vincent de Jesus’ Changing Partners thrives in the transition thanks to director Dan Villegas and editor Marya Ignacio’s foresight in substituting the blocking for editing — the gender and power imbalances within the relationship mirrored instead by the movements and match cuts. Herlyn Alegre’s Imbisibol shifts successfully into film from its origins as a one-act play in Virgin Lab Fest by including breathtaking shots of Fukuoka in the wintertime, transforming a backdrop into a character that amplifies the loneliness and languishing of its characters. But Bangkay displays little of this thoughtfulness and attention, focusing instead on cheap shock and provocation, none of which are even shocking enough or provocative enough to merit further discussion.

So, for the first time in my life, I walked out. Even if its rape and incestuous scenes felt violating and gratuitous, I left not because I thought the material was too much. I have sat through worse from way better — Gaspar Noé, Takashi Miike, and even Pier Paolo Pasolini. But the experience of watching the film itself was loaded with violations I wasn’t ready for. The screening began two hours late, and in the interim, several unmasked individuals peppered the theater, some loudly coughing in the air. When I approached an attendant to tell them of these health code violations (Alert Level 1 requires non-eating customers to wear a mask), no changes were made. How can we encourage Filipinos to go back to cinemas if we can’t uphold the rules that are meant to protect them?

I do not regret leaving. After reading the script of the play (available via the Palanca website), I knew I hadn’t missed much. At some point on the way home, I asked myself: Why does this story beg to be told through film? Sadly, the question remains unanswered.

I’d say that Bangkay was dead on arrival, but I’m not sure if it was alive in the first place. – Rappler.com

Bangkay by Vince Tañada had its international premiere on May 14, 2022 at the Red Carpet Cinema, Shangri-La Plaza, Shaw Boulevard, EDSA. Viewing was made possible thanks to the Society of Filipino Film Reviewers.

Jason Tan Liwag

Jason Tan Liwag is an openly gay scientist, actor, and writer. As a film critic, he is an alumnus of the IFFR Young Critics Programme 2021, the FEFF Film Campus 2021, the Yamagata Film Criticism Workshop 2021, and the CINELAB Workshop 2020 and has served as a jury member for film festivals locally and internationally.