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A collage of fictional scenes set among affluent law students folded together with documentary footage of the urban underclass, this Manila-set feature by Filipino wunderkind Pepe Diokno may at first seem sprawling and slapdash. But the frantic formlessness chimes perfectly with the manic subject matter: a crushing love-hate ode to the class-oriented malaise cruising through the veins of the filmmaker’s hometown. In Brotherhood, Diokno has delivered a harsh but heartening hymn set amidst the lives of both moneyed young gods and penniless plebeians.
Offering a raucous twist on the filth-and-fury, realist aesthetics that shaped the work of predecessors from Lina Brocka to Brillante Mendoza, Brotherhood also features a string of cameos from — among others — filmmakers Lav Diaz (as a shady fraternity elder!) and Jim Libiran (of 2007 festival hit Tribu, here playing a corrupt politician). Having bowed at home at the Quezon City International Film Festival last year, this third feature from the 28-year-old Diokno — following his 2009 Venice award-winner Clash and Above the Clouds from 2014 — should find keen followers on the festival circuit after its international premiere at Karlovy Vary.
Rooted in the fictional part of the film, the title alludes to a mysterious fraternity that inducts freshmen through violence. Mischievously, Diokno opens with a cheesy music video featuring fresh-faced law students studying and having fun in brightly lit classrooms and gleaming cafes. But what follows — a quote from Lord of the Flies: “Maybe there is a beast … maybe it’s only us” — provides a harbinger of the dark horrors to come. “Masters” mete out physical abuse and more to young men, who are forced to holler how they really, really yearn for such “hardship” and “bliss”; a young graduate is asked about his sexuality and instructed to strip at a job interview presided over by “elders” at a law firm; and a junior is coerced by a senior into carrying out a hit on a rival.
Diokno returns to this thread throughout the film. But Brotherhood offers more than just a spine-tingling thriller about the power of lawless cabals in the legal arena; the director — himself the grandson of a barrister-politician imprisoned during the Marcos dictatorship and the son of a human-rights advocate and law professor — expands his argument that Manila, or even the Philippines, is just one big clan where social hierarchies spawn subservient behavior.
While eschewing the extreme grotesqueries deployed by director Khavn de la Cruz in his similarly themed Mondomanila, Diokno’s visions are equally scary, given the throwaway, quotidian way in which unjust class relations manifest themselves. Rich kids wither as they are taken to task for not knowing the books in class, but then the same young dudes party like there’s no tomorrow. Who needs knowledge when you have connections? And why not just have a good time instead?
Meanwhile, Diokno himself appears onscreen in a conversation with Regina Belmonte, a jet-setting fashionista, celebrity blogger and — perhaps most importantly — the scion of one of the most powerful clans in the Philippines. At a rooftop bar overlooking Manila, she complains about being “confined” on home turf because of her surname, saying that only Berlin provides her with solace. So much for the joys and pains of privilege. This mentality trickles down the social ladder, as those on the bottom rungs are seen subscribing to norms set by those above.
In the documentary footage, members of a religious sect or young university students belt anthems to show their unwavering sense of belonging. Meanwhile, there are shots of a sign dictating tyrannical rules within a prison; bloody cockfights, followed by the slaughter of the same birds and their end as roast chicken on a rotating spit. This, perhaps, is a visual metaphor for the rite of passage of the film’s most recognizable fictional character, Edd (Abner Delina), the young law student seen suffering from all the hazings as he seeks to join the “brotherhood.” As he slowly recovers from his bruises, his detached expression hints at how he has steeled himself to keep this cycle of violence going.
Dizzying in its structure but deadly when it lands that fatal hook, Brotherhood offers a living nightmare in which Manila is firmly in the grip of — to misquote Brocka’s social-realist classic about the city — the claws of darkness rather than light. What’s most surprising is that while Diokno and co-screenwriter Lilit Reyes were cooking up this doom and gloom, they also were behind the hit yuppie-oriented rom-com TV series Single/Single.
Venue: Karlovy Vary Film Festival
Production companies: Epicmedia Productions, Potocol
Cast: Abner Delina, Daniel Medrana, Jim Libiran, Lav Diaz, Regina Belmonte
Director: Pepe Diokno
Screenwriters: Pepe Diokno, Lilit Reyes, Benjamin Tolentino
Producers: Bianca Balbuena, Jeremy Chua
Director of photography: Ruel Antipuesto, Geric Cruz
Production designer: Benjamin Padero, Carlo Tabije
Editor: Benjamin Tolentino
Music: Johann Mendoza
International Sales: Epicmedia Productions
In Tagalog, English and Illongo
Not rated, 86 minutes
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