Possession (Sapi): Hong Kong Review

Hong Kong Intrernational Film Festival
The atmosphere is promising, but the metaphor of nature rising up against a greed-driven society barely whistles through.

Better not to mess around with demons in Brillante Mendoza’s atypical horror film from the Philippines.

In an interesting, if not really convincing, attempt at genre contamination, Possession (Sapi) compares the horror of the way TV stations are run with that of supernatural demons and finds the latter lacking. These are two really impossible things to bring together, but true to his daring type, art house director Brillante Mendoza courageously plows ahead and sees what will happen. His first venture into horror may intrigue his followers, but it’s going to disappoint genre fans, who will have only a nice amount of unsettling atmosphere and one incredibly horrific shot to take home.

For better or worse, it’s a step back towards normality after the shocking voyeurism of Kinatay, which raised critics’ hackles a few Cannes ago with its single-minded depiction of a woman’s murder and dismemberment. Compared to that sickening realism, the horror here feels fake, little more than an excuse to beef up a tepid drama about unethical journalism and casually immoral people against an artificially exciting backdrop. Weak characters and less than compelling storytelling further lowers chances of a box office breakout beyond the festival circuit.

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Set during the dramatic rainy season, the story begins with the rivalry between two mighty Manila stations, Sarimanok Broadcasting Network (SBN) and Philippine Broadcasting Channel (PBC). Their unscrupulous heads are just out for the ratings, and their attitude filters down to an ambitious SBN production team lead by the young Meryll Flores (Meryll Soriano). With her cameraman and the ambitious new anchor Dennis (Dennis Trillo), she nervously sets out in the TV van to try to document a case of possession by the devil -- said to be a common thing in the Philippines during the rainy season. A torrential downpour and flooded roads embed their trek in realism, but when they finally reach the village where a schoolteacher (Ruby Ruiz) is being possessed, she’s already quieting down. Unfortunately for them, PBC got there first and taped the juicy footage. On the way home, Meryll gives a lift to freelance cameraman Baron (Baron Geisler), who did the shooting for PBC, and craftily buys some outtakes from him. Only she omits to black out Ruby’s face, as PBC was required to do. Her program is a hit that sends the ratings soaring, but retribution for the whole news team is right around the corner in the form of that demon within.

“The evil spirit is our desire to possess things we don’t need,” says one wise interviewee, which is probably the point Henry Burgos’s uncertain screenplay wants to make most. If only the characters were more vividly drawn, one might care about their morals and their fate as supernatural phenomena begin to occur. A run-over dog eerily jumps up unharmed; invisible demons start to share the reporters’ most intimate moments; and in a climactic scene, a giant snake makes a shocking onscreen appearance.

It all works well in building a sinister atmosphere of dread, heightened by an apocalyptic storm soundtrack in the background. The grainy, hand-held camerawork and natural lighting seem to imitate sub-standard television aesthetics, but the cutting is very fast-paced.

Venue: Hong Kong Film Festival (The Glories of Filipino Cinema), March 24, 2014

Production companies: Solar Entertainment in association with Center Stage Productions

Cast: Baron Geisler, Meryll Soriano, Dennis Trillo, Ruby Ruiz, Flor Solanga, Raquel Villavincencio, Jon Achaval, Richard Manabat, Jim Libiran, Mercedes Cabral

Director: Brillante Ma. Mendoza

Screenwriter: Henry Burgos

Producer: Larry Castillo

Executive producers: Wilson Tieng, Brillante Ma. Mendoza

Directors of photography:  Brillante Ma. Mendoza, Jeffrey Dela Cruz

Production designer: Dante Mendoza

Editor: Kats Serraon

Music: Gian Gianan

Sales Agent: Center Stage Productions

No rating, 103 minutes

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