'Underground' ('Pailalim'): Film Review | San Sebastian 2017

San Sebastian International Film Festival
Hard-knock tale of a cemetery without splendor.

Joem Bascon stars in Filipino writer-director Daniel R. Palacio's debut, premiering in the lucrative New Directors competition at the Spanish festival.

Resting in peace proves easier said than done for the residents of a ramshackle Manila cemetery in Daniel R Palacio's hard-hitting debut feature Underground (Pailalim). Made under the auspices of established Filipino eminence Brillante Mendoza, who serves as executive producer and "creative consultant," it's yet another slice of gritty life from the country's overcrowded capital. But there's more than enough here to make this harrowing enterprise stand out from the poverty-row pack, and further festival bookings deserve to flow in the wake of its debut in the lucrative ($58,750) New Directors competition at San Sebastian.

Palacio's prime trump card is his choice of location, the Eternal Home necropolis in the traffic-choked Pasig City district. Eternal Home is a crumbling, cramped urban graveyard with the crypts above ground, the coffins stored in sealed niches arranged grid-fashion several stories high. Paralleling a real-life phenomenon that has attracted global media attention over the last couple of years, Eternal Home is inhabited by the living as well as the deceased: Dozens of squatting families have turned the mini-mausoleums into makeshift, somewhat macabre abodes.

Periodically swept out by the local council's dreaded, red-T-shirted "Action Team," the dwellers quickly return thanks to the easy bribe-ability of Tebyong (Jun Nayra), who seems to be the premises' only guard. Main narrative focus is on 20ish couple Bangis (Joel Bascon) and Barbie (Mara Lopez), whose preteen daughter Ningning (Grace Ann Betalmos) suffers from various health complaints.

Her illnesses occasion periodic dashes to the nearest hospital, stretching the family's shoestring finances beyond breaking point. Part-time gravedigger Bangis' desperate need for cash triggers the Rififi style near-wordless mid-section heist set-piece: A newly interred coffin is extricated from its niche, its hapless occupant "harvested" of gold teeth before being smuggled into the hands of local criminals. We never find out exactly what these miscreants intend to do with the not-so-fresh cadaver, but sometimes it's better not to know ...

In a classic giveaway of low-budget productions down the ages, meanwhile, the aged "corpse" is clearly seen breathing after being removed from his coffin; for a moment the viewer may wonder if Palacio, who isn't averse to a touch of emotion-tugging melodrama here and there, is about to execute a stunning left-field turn into horror-genre territory.

The specters of poverty and inequality are much more nightmarish than any zombie or vampire, of course, and the writer-director pulls few punches in his unflinchingly raw portrayal at an unthinkably low rung of the social ladder. That said, if the kind of grave robbing occasionally depicted here (a film "based on true events") is a matter of dramatic license, it would constitute a dubious kind of screenwriting invention.

But while there are undeniably some rough edges and debatable decisions script-wise, leading man Bascon is another reliable strong suit. An experienced actor on film and TV who is quite the bad-boy pinup at home, he makes for an empathetic and thoroughly convincing unwashed denizen of this sordid milieu. The cemetery has no electricity, running water or washroom facilities, meaning that toilets are often of the "flying" (i.e. plastic bag) variety.

Palacio, whose previous credits comprise a couple of recent shorts, has clearly taken several leaves from the well thumbed Mendoza playbook, while managing to put his own stylistic stamp on proceedings. Maria Teresa Barrozo's score is occasionally intrusive and generally conventional, but the labyrinthine main location really comes to life via cinematographer Rommel Sales' chiaroscuro nocturnal lighting. His prowling, kinetic camerawork, executed in sallow yellow-brown tones, plunges us forcefully into the unrelieved grimness of a true socio-economic dead end.

Production companies: Center Stage Productions, Tv5
Cast: Joem Bascon, Mara Lopez, Grace Ann Betalmos, Ryan Sandoval, Jun Nayra
Director / Screenwriter: Daniel R Palacio
Producer: Brillante Mendoza
Cinematographer: Rommel Sales
Production designer: Harley Alcasid
Costume designers: Jhelai Lanares, Ruffa Lovino
Editor: Diego Marx Dobles
Composer: Maria Teresa Barrozo
Casting director: Evangeline Torcino
Venue: San Sebastian Film Festival (New Directors Competition)
Sales: Center Stage, Manila (brillante_ma@yahoo.com)
In Tagalog
No Rating, 87 minutes