Film Review: Casket for Rent

BOTTOM LINE: Drama on a funeral enterprise fails to breathe life into Philippine social realist genre.

Udine Far East Film Festival

A rent-a-coffin business serves as an interesting but not especially original entry point to the sordid lives and undignified deaths of an urban slum in Manila.

Gritty ghetto stories have become de rigeur in so many Philippine independent films so "Casket for Rent" follows the conventional digital verite style that launched works like "Kubrador," "Tribu" and "Slingshot" onto the festival circuit with director Neal Tan taking a particularly unsentimental stance in his depiction of hard-luck, hardened characters who deserve neither pity nor condemnation.

As festivals always have room for at least one Asian slum indie, "Casket for Rent," with its integration of neo-realism and TV melodramatic elements, stands as good a chance of being selected as other entries with a similar setting.

For characterizations, Tan rounds up the usual suspects of Philippine indie cinema -- prostitutes and rent boys, junkies and pimps, gangsters and corrupt district politicians. He adds a surreal touch with a mad seer homeless man, who mutters running moral commentary in verse.

What sets this apart from similar works is the cast's more professional acting and display of stony pragmatism. Their stories are introduced through their dealings with a money-grabbing and bickering couple who run the coffin rental. Some macabre touches reinforce their mercenary nature, such as the husband re-sizing the bodies to fit the caskets or the wife applying the same make-up to clients living and dead. But more elaboration on this business, and what it means to the community, or developing it as a deeper metaphor would definitely have heightened the film's dramatic impact.

Though overlong and often lacking personality in its visual style, the film evokes a grotesque yet poetic lyricism in its final moments, adding a spiritual dimension that echoes the aesthetics of masters like Lino Brocka and Mario O'Hara.

Unitel Productions/Artiste Entertainment Works
Sales Agent: Unitel Pictures International (Tito Velasco)

Cast: Guido: Joel Torre; Pining: Jaclyn Jose; Batul: Ronnie Lazaro; Tata Islaw: Pen Medina.

Credits: Director: Neal Tan; Writers: Buboy Tan, Anthony V Gedang; Based on the story by Neal Tan and Tonet Gedang; Executive producer: Anthony V Gedang; Director of photography: Renato "Atoy" de Vera; Production designer: Willie Urbino; Music: Nonong Buencamino, Bert Habal; Editor: Rocky Ko.

No MPAA rating, running time 94 minutes.