Squalor -- Film Review

Benjamin Walker
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NEW YORK - OCTOBER 13:  Actor Benjamin Walker attends the "Bloody Bloody Jackson" opening night after party at Brasserie 8 1/2 on October 13, 2010 in New York City.

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BUSAN, South Korea -- Manila's slums have made their mark on Philippine independent cinema the way "City of God" put Brazil's favelas on the cinephile map. If the names of Brillante Mendoza or Auraeus Solito ring a bell, "Squalor" will provoke a reaction of "been there, done that." It is composed of four 20-30 minute segments, all set in the same urban grassroots neighborhood. Characters are linked by six degrees of separation, but each one stands at a crossroads, ultimately getting defeated by social circumstances.

Director Giuseppe Bede Sampedro's proficient narrative technique, light pacing and a roaring hip-hop score make the essentially TV soap material an easy watch. However, most festivals may still pass over it for the stale premise. Having partial homosexual content may catch the eye of gay fests. However, some may object to its image of gay men as predatory and exploitive.

All four protagonists face a crisis of masculinity. They are observed in their roles as boyfriend, husband-father, son and big brother, respectively. Poverty makes them unable to fulfill their responsibilities in those roles. So they end up selling their flesh to survive. The theme of swindling runs through every episode.

In the first story, Ariel (Dennis Trillo) works for a shop selling fake documents while moonlighting as a gigolo-hustler. He starts dating Elgine, a student. Just as he gets serious, he is exposed by her brother Basto (Sid Lucerno).

Next, Boy (Edgar Guzman), a peddler of skin care products, loses all his savings to bail out his shoplifting mother. To cover medical bills for his wife's delivery, he offers sex services to a homosexual.

In a new scene, Ronald arrives from the provinces to inherit his unfaithful father's house in Chinatown. He manages to sell it despite its dilapidation, only because the horny buyer thinks he's hot property.

We return full circle to Elgine's brother Basto, whose academic studies suffer because he is the family breadwinner. He resorts to selling blood in the hospital.

Obviously, the "squalor" Sampredo wants to evoke is moral as well as territorial. Despite that, he lacks the eye for striking mise-en-scenes whose physical appearance also symbolizes moral decay.

Pusan International Film Festival -- New Currents

Production: Presented by Cinemalaya Film Foundation Inc., Five2Seven Entertainment Production
Cast: Dennis Trillo, Sid Lucerno, Edgar Allan Guzman, Arnold Reyes, Glaiza de Castro
Director: Giuseppe Bede Sampedro
Screenwriter: Jerry Gracio
Based on the story by: Noel D. Ferrer, Giuseppe Bede Sampedro, Jerry Gracio
Producers: Noel D. Ferrer, Giuseppe Bede Sampedro
Executive producers: Boy Abunda, Boy So
Director of photography: Odyssey Flores
Production designer: Cyrus Khan
Music: Jesse Lucas
Editor: Charliebebs Gohetia
No rating, 98 minutes