Tribe (Tribu)

Bottom Line: A formulaic boyz-in-the-hood flick revved up by authentic Manila street rap.

Pusan International Film Festival

BUSAN, South Korea -- If you've seen the recent spate of Philippine indies doing their festival rounds, you might walk into "Tribe" (Tribu) wondering if you're still navigating the set of "Kubrador," "Slingshot" or even "The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros." There's nothing wrong with your cinematic compass.

Director Jim Libiran, who won best feature at the third Cinemalaya Film Festival for this debut, participated in scriptwriter "Bing" Lao's Real Time Writing workshop, also attended by some crew members of the above-mentioned films. "Bing" decrees that indie films should depict "reality" in the Philippines (if poverty is pervasive, so be it), in a condensed but virtual time-frame, and make the location or milieu (not the cast) the main character. That's why these gritty, slum-centric DV films employing grassroots nonpros all look the same -- poverty cannot afford any makeovers.

"Tribe" ferries us into the Stygian slum of Tondo through the voice of a child, Ebet. "Only the tough survive. ... Here, a child can be a badass," he asserts. He gives us a guided tour with a gang initiation rite as bonus. A boy not even in his teens is blindfolded and thwacked with a wooden plank while muttering "I love Thugz Angels" between clenched teeth. A girl not much older is given the option of consensual beating or nonconsensual sex.

Nothing else in the film quite lives up to this knockout, visceral prologue. The catalyst for the main action is the murder of one Totoy Turat, from the SBT gang. The cops for want of a culprit, arbitrarily arrest Memey, a member of Thugz Angels. Both gangs blame the Diablos. On the night of Totoy's funeral, Thugz Angels supply SBT with ammo to mow down their common foe. The cycle of vendetta repeats itself.

"Tribe" has been compared with "City of God," for want of a transatlantic equivalent. Yet while the latter's superior aesthetic and technical prowess borders on stylistic ostentation, "Tribe's" threadbare production values offer cinematography of mostly nocturnal shots on a shaky handheld in alternating flashes of monochrome and harsh Dayglo colors. While "City of God" has a unified character-driven center, "Tribe" scours its location like a greedy scavenger, giving as much prominence to sweaty sex or a squabble over electric bills as to the slack buildup to the clumsily choreographed turf war.

While "Kubrador" is anchored by Gina Pareno's virtuoso performance and "Blossoming" by its crowd-pleasing gay theme, "Tribe's" trump card is its live rap music. Ad-libbed by the cast of real gangster rappers, each song is a unique voice articulating the rough-hewn vitality of their existence. Hip-hop or freestyle, that's the film's true soul and protagonist, not the faceless, overexposed slum.

8 Glasses Production Inc/Cinemalaya/Independent Filmmakers Cooperative of Philippines
Director-screenwriter: Jim Libiran
Executive producers: Dodge Dillague, Mitchelle Moreno, Jim Libiran, Gene Cajayon
Director of photography: Albert Banzon
Production designer: Armi Cacanindin
Music: Francis de Veyra
Editor: Lawrence S. Ang
Ebet: Karl Eigger Balingit
Dennis: Restly Perez; Makoy
OG Sacred; Katherine: Ira Marasigan

Running time -- 95 minutes
No MPAA rating