Neill Dela Llana and Ian Gamazon’s film Cavite (2005) wears its indie film roots on its sleeve for good and bad reasons. As a movie, it fits within the political thriller template since the main story is about Adam, played by Ian Gamazon himself, who must deal with a Muslim extremist group, Abu Sayyaf, who have kidnapped his mother and sister during his return trip back to the Philippines for his father’s funeral. Although influenced by Hollywood crime dramas and thrillers like The Limey (1999), Cellular (2004), Phone Booth (2002), and Narc (2002) Llana and Gamazon strip all the gloss and sheen from those productions and utilize guerilla film tactics to create a very frenetic story. And although this specific style lent Cavite the sense of urgency that all good thrillers need to have, I found myself during my viewing of the film suffering from a mild case of motion sickness. The ever-present use of handheld tracking shots, steadicam, freeze frames and kinetic editing are all de rigeur film school techniques since the early 90’s with the popularity of Wong Kar-Wai and American indie directors like Robert Rodriguez and Kevin Smith yet Cavite could have benefited from a toning down of style paying more attention to story and character.
Ian Gamazon’s performance as Adam, although not bad, was severely lacking, especially since, as viewers, we rarely if ever leave the character of Adam throughout the entire film’s runtime, so it was imperative that whoever was going to be playing the role had to have the acting chops to carry the entire film on their shoulders. Especially since Adam interacts with most people through the use of a phone, we are never really privy to any information or reaction shots other than Adam’s. Of course the heavy production workload, besides acting, co-writing and directing the film Gamazon also was in charge of sound during the shooting, may have lent to his performance being less than stellar.
Of course what many people automatically discuss when talking about Cavite is the film’s use of the Philippine’s ongoing conflict between the national government and the Filipino Muslim population on the island of Mindanao. Groups like Al Qaeda and Abu Sayyaf are thrown around and current international hot button issues like global terrorism are bandied about, but as vicious as these rogue separatist groups are, discussions about them usually devolves into a tabloid-like listing of atrocities committed by these groups. Llana and Gamazon’s film doesn’t really do anything new when tackling these same complicated issues and though making Adam a lapsed Muslim did add some depth to his character the third act revelation about his father’s connection to the man pulling Adam’s strings during the film seemed so perfunctory that its introduction so late into the story made it useless and changed nothing about the story or how I viewed Adam.
Also, by making the main antagonist in the story a faceless voice on the phone, the suspense is heightened, but this also reduces the “Muslim threat” into a comic book super villain. Throughout the film, Adam’s tormentor seemingly is able to track every move he makes, knows all his personal history, and has a network of thugs and spies to do his bidding. By turning the Muslim antagonists in the story into bogeymen though, oversimplifies the conflict between the Christians and Muslims in the Philippines into a battle with the innocent Christians against heartless Islamic thugs. Of course, this conflict is anything but simple and, although Llana and Gamazon touch upon it briefly in Cavite, a lot of the conflict is rooted less in a division of religious beliefs but a socio-economic division, with the Mindanao region being one of the poorest in the Philippines.
What interested me most about the film, though, is the travelogue aspect of the story that is buried underneath the suspense film. Both Neill Dela Llana and Ian Gamazon are Filipino Americans who mobile casino grew up predominantly in the United States and although they do a fine job of capturing the dust and grime of the shantytowns and squatter camps that dot the Philippine landscape, the film does relish too much in poverty porn clichés like rabid barking dogs, crying half naked children, and polluted sumps. I’m not saying that these things don’t exist in the Philippines, sadly they are all part of the country’s urban environment, but as a sharp contrast to Llana and Gamazon’s stark and depressing portrayal of slum life, cinephiles should watch Auraeus Solito’s film Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros (The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros) released the same year as Cavite. Unlike Llana and Gamazon’s film, Solito takes the Manila slums in his movie and makes it into a community populated with a variety of three-dimensional characters. The slums in Llana and Gamazon’s film, though are a place to be overcome. At least twice in the film there is a shot of a 747 flying over the shantytown that Adam has been dragged to and one can’t help but make the connection that maybe what the filmmakers are trying to say is that escape is the only route towards salvation for these people just as Adam’s family had done. Yet ironically, Adam, far from finding success and opportunity in the United States, is stuck in an unfulfilling dead end job and so although immigration away from the “mother country” may mean an improvement in one’s quality of life, it does not necessarily mean that happiness or a feeling of contentment will follow.
Another interesting thing to note is the blatant use of iconic Western franchises, specifically McDonald’s. Twice in the film, Llana and Gamazon stop the narrative cold to follow a little boy who is carrying a bag of McDonald’s and we watch as he eats a meal of burger, fries, and soda pop. The first time alone out in the street and the second time at the boy’s home as he shares his food with an old woman that we presume to be his grandmother. These two “Western meals” stand in contrast with the two “native dishes” that Adam has during his sojourn through Manila. The first is a quick snack of balut, an inexpensive Filipino snack consisting of a fertilized duck egg boiled and eaten, embryo and all. The second meal Adam has is more drink than food, specifically a soda drank Filipino style, that is from a clear plastic bag. The two scenes with the little boy and his meal of McDonald’s is shot so reverently and I’m not quite sure if the boy was coached on how to eat his food, but it’s interesting to watch the little rituals he performs; eyeing the food, unwrapping it, etc. before he goes and takes a bite. This stands in stark contrast to Adam’s two meals of balut and soda in a bag that are presented very matter-of-factly and during both times Adam is shown to be less than happy with what he’s consuming.
Beyond the use of food, another recurring motif in the film is how the faceless antagonist constantly insults Adam with a barrage of homophobic comments. Whenever Adam refuses to do something or reacts negatively to the harsh reality of slum life, the faceless antagonist will automatically question Adam’s masculinity and, then through a show of violence, force Adam into submitting to his will. This addresses an unspoken viewpoint that many Filipinos have, specifically Filipino males, which is that the Filipinos born and raised outside the country are seen as soft, weak and more feminine than the ones who were raised in the “mother country” due to the fact that Filipino Americans had certain luxuries that native-born Filipinos were deprived of. Yet, as Llana and Gamazon illustrate in several scenes within Cavite, the Philippines attraction-repulsion to all things American creates yet another divide within the culture. Thus, although Adam may look Filipino and is fluent in Tagalog, he is easily marked as different or the other by native Filipinos around him.
As a political suspense-thriller, Cavite does a decent enough job, but the film’s simplistic treatment of Christian and Muslim relations is far too heavy-handed to be effective in broaching such a hot button issue. Ultimately what the film succeeds at best is engaging the viewer in the complicated reality facing many returning Filipinos who end up feeling more like foreigners in their own country. By utilizing a Filipino American protagonist just like themselves Llana and Gamazon are allowed to explore a lot of harsh truths in the Philippines and because the protagonist is mainly a stranger to many of the customs, the filmmakers can chock up their naivety as an excuse for their one-sided viewpoint of slum life. Although Filipino cinema has begun to gain some publicity over the years, it is important for filmmakers and audiences alike to realize that, as deplorable as the situation can get in the shanty towns and squatter camps one finds in any third world countr,y this very narrow viewpoint ignores the fact that strong communities do form and though things like poverty and crime may sadly never be abolished, it does not mean that love, family, and happiness are completely absent.