'Shadow Behind the Moon' ('Anino sa likod ng buwan'): Vladivostok Review

Shadow Behind the Moon - H 2015
Courtesy of October Train/Idea First Films
Tense and taut drama oozing sex, sweat and social chaos.

Philippine director Jun Robles Lana's one-take, two-hour three-hander revolves around two refugees' interaction with a soldier in a village caught in the middle of brutal counter-insurgency operations.

The title to Jun Robles Lana's latest film is self-explanatory on many levels. On a literal level, Shadow Behind the Moon points to the lunar eclipse taking place over the two hours in which the story unfolds; on a more symbolic level, it hints at the multitude of suppressed emotions and secret identities bubbling behind the seemingly simple veneers of the film's three characters. But it might also allude to the Philippine director's indie sensitivities coming further to the fore, as he temporarily casts aside his telenovelas creative consultant day-job to deliver what could easily be his most visually singular outing yet.

Set entirely around a shack in the insurgency-wrought Philippine hinterlands in the early 1990s, Shadow Behind the Moon explores the relationship between a refugee couple and the soldier in a one-take, two-hour film shot in the boxed-up 4:3 aspect ratio. With the output touched up — or should it be down? — to resemble grainy, analog video, the end result is stunningly different from not only the soap operas Lana produces regularly for network television, but also his previous arthouse-oriented festival hits of Bwakaw and Barber's Tales.

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Boosted further by bravura turns from his cast, Shadows Behind the Moon — which bowed at the Forum of Independents section at the Karlovy Vary festival in July — is destined to take off for more bookings on the circuit after its award-winning appearance at Vladivostok, where it scooped the Best Director and Best Actress titles in addition to the pedigree-enhancing Netpac and Fipresci prizes. The next stops for the film is Hamburg and the Nouveau Cinema festival at Montreal.

Having begun his film career penning screenplays for the renowned socially-conscious director Marilou Diaz-Abaya, Lana has thrived with work contemplating the emancipation of social outcasts in mainstream society. Just like in Barber's Tales — in which a meek homemaker emerges out of his haircutter husband's legacy to rise above rascals and revolutionaries of the day —Shadow Behind the Moon is a nominal three-hander which, in effect, is a study of its leading female character. Emma (LJ Reyes) begins the film silently washing herself in the woods; Lana's screenplay gradually peels off her many layers of deception and confusion, leading to the final shot.

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Emma's radicalization (or re-radicalization, to be exact) unfolds as she and her partner Nando (Anthony Falcon) struggle to survive in the Marag Valley, a northern Philippine region known then for being the "no man's land" on which the army fought an atrocity-fuelled war with the pro-communist New People's Army. The battle lines are slowly drawn as the couple engages with Joel (Luis Alandy), a stud of a soldier they have befriended since they arrived in the village a year ago. As the night wears on, different permutations of the threesome engage in intercourse — verbal or physical — that illustrate loyalties swaying under the weight of their own desire, or the distressful circumstances in which they flap and splutter.

Despite some of the more melodramatic twists and turns, Shadow Behind the Moon effectively conveys the sweaty, dirty reality in which Emma, Nando and Joel live in. In one of the script's many thoughtful ideas and designs, the characters discuss the eerie sounds they hear in the forests at night: it must be the cigar-munching evil spirit out there, they say, a havoc-wreaking force which soldiers, rebels and refugees couldn't appease. Indeed, Lana's direction of this claustrophobic piece does bring out all the manic but panged-up energy permeating and poisoning the characters from inside out. While not exactly a widescreen spectacle, Shadow Behind the Moon offers taut drama of hearts and minds both giving way in a battleground dripping with sexual tension and social chaos.

Venue: Pacific Meridian International Film Festival, Vladivostok (Competition)

Production companies: Octobertrain Films, The Idea First Company

Cast: LJ Reyes, Luis Alandy, Anthony Falcon

Director: Jun Robles Lana

Screenwriter: Jun Robles Lana

Producers: Ferdinand Lapuz, Antonio Tuviera, Jun Robles Lana, Carlo Mendoza, Tonee Acejo, Lawrence Ang, Mark C. Leander Mendoza

Executive producers: Perci M. Intalan, Michael Tuviera, Jojo Oconer, Rams David  

Director of photography: Carlo Mendoza

Production designer: Tonee Acejo

Editor: Lawrence Ang

Casting: Omar Sortijas

Music: Richard Gonzales

International Sales: Ignatius Films Canada

In Tagalog

No rating; 121 minutes