Ma (Philippines, 2018) [NYAFF 2019]

The monosyllabic simplicity of the title of Kenneth Lim Dagatan’s debut feature is deceiving. It belies a work that operates very much like a fairy tale, specifically those of old whose grim and highly disturbing elements reveal the darker sides of human behaviour and psyche. For the film’s two-pronged story of family, love, and the extreme lengths to which a person will go to preserve it all is simultaneously an explicit portrait of the power of belief, and its variants of religion and superstition. Its haunting and unsparing images will surely linger in the brain; the film is like a condemned picture book that is accidentally found amongst thick dust and cobwebs but piques the curiosity to open it up anyway. But beyond the visuals, the film unfortunately suffers  from a choppy narrative development that prompts some quick page-turning, or in this case, fast-forwarding, pausing only to clarify the plot points whenever it is possible to find them.

Such choppiness is even more unfortunate in the wake of the film’s initial sequences, which take their time in delineating character, setting, and mood, without any need for dialogue. Nodding to the simultaneous magic and dread of the forest and the isolation and secrecy that it often brings to family abodes, the film’s main setting is a seemingly vast woodland forest. The magnetic center of this forest is what the town locals call the “haunted house” or the “wishing well,” a fissure cave that could very well have been conjured by nightmares and is known for its strange pull and being populated by spirits, powers, and the like. The cave’s alluring quality is further boosted by the unnamed town’s reputation for its devout Catholicism. Images of the cave and the surrounding green are veritable visual motifs that strike a sinister chord, even without the film’s equally sinister ambient music.

This sinisterly quality is immediately established when the main character Samuel (Kyle Espiritu) is first introduced in the middle of the forest with nobody else around, his back to the camera, hunched over, and on his knees. The camera belatedly reveals the reason for his position: he is piercing a(n already dead?) black bird with a knife, while his face is expressionless, with possibly a hint of boredom creeping into it. The distraction having exhausted itself, Samuel continues on his way around the forest, only to come upon the cave. Soon after entering, he realises that his wanderings have become circular, repeatedly bringing him along the same narrow path, as if suddenly caught in a time loop. But just as quickly, he breaks free from it and comes upon a solitary tree lit by an unknown source. He tries to touch a leaf with his right hand and immediately recoils, as if jolted by an electric shock. The tree then communicates with him, which then sends him away from it, away from the cave, and through the forest. As he runs, he realises that his right arm has somehow healed, and comes to the realisation of the tree’s potential power(s).

This opening sequence is quite mesmerising, enhanced by Espiritu’s nearly wordless performance. Though still powerful, the following sequences that detail his struggling family life centered around his sickly mother and how he goes out of his way to repair his family are less so, in large part because they feel rushed; even more so in comparison to the opening sequence’s slow, moody buildup. In fact, with a few exceptions, the rest of the film never fully matches the clarity, calibre, and interest of the early sequences.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the initial sequences are the most fairy tale-like, as they concentrate on Samuel’s isolated household. Upon his return home, the film discloses his family situation: he is the eldest of three siblings of a single-parent household. Seated at the table for dinner, the image of the family is calm. But only for a second, as the mother Lina (Glydel Mercado) is endlessly wracked with coughing, even as she is uttering a prayer before eating. Clearly ill, it eventually leads to her demise, a violent scene of blood and expiration witnessed by all of the children. Putting two and two together, Samuel consults the “giving tree” and has his mother resurrected. The rest of the film consists of Samuel dealing with the increasingly alarming consequences of the pact thus struck with the giving-tree-but-at-a-cost.

Not content with one storyline, despite its seventy-minute running time and already choppy development, the film introduces another one concerning a pregnant widow, Cecile (Anna Luna), whose pregnancy is shrouded in hazy details involving her mother’s white boyfriend and her husband’s suicide. She promptly seeks refuge with her sister in their hometown, which, not coincidentally, is the same one as Samuel’s.

As expected, the two storylines converge in gruesome circumstances, with ever more sacrifices involved. The film is for the unapologetic grisliness of sacrifice. And on this note, one can take the film as a whole at face value and watch it as a contribution to the suspense/horror genre. Or as an allegorical tale about the (destructive) power of belief.

Ma is showing at the New York Asian Film Festival 2019 on July 7.