Respeto (Philippines, 2017) [NYAFF 2018]

Treb Montreras II’s debut feature-length film Respeto looks into the Fliptop Rap Battle, which comprises a large part of contemporary Filipino hiphop subculture in the urban streets of the Philippines. Deploying an immersive and participatory aesthetics in the opening scene, the film immediately draws us into the raw and confined space of the Fliptop Battle. It looks straight into its world, without any introductory shots. Yet, for the Filipino viewer, Montrera’s urban jungle is not new. We have already seen these images in numerous Philippine independent films that visually explores the network of houses in an informal settlers’ area to seedy girly bars to spaces of illicit drug trade, all of which show the lubricated underground libidinal economy of the Filipino lumpenproletariats.

The film follows the coming-of-age story of Hendrix (Abra), an aspiring Fliptop rapper, who deals with his dysfunctional family and neighbourhood on a daily basis. Together with his friends Betchai (Chai Fonancier) and Payaso (Yves Bagadiong), his ultimate goal is to win the Fliptop battle ‘Bersus’ and beat his rival Breezy G (Loonie). While pursuing this dream, he is also entrenched in the underground drug trade business ran by his sister Connie (Thea Yrastorza) and brother-in-law Mando (Brian Arda). When Hendrix lost his brother-in-law’s drug money in his first attempt to win the Fliptop rap battle, he and his friends decided to loot the second-hand book shop of Doc, an old man who has been living on his own for a long time. Hendrix and his friends were caught. To pay for their dues, the law-enforcers compelled them to repair the damages they made in Doc’s bookshop. This incidence led to an unruly but life-changing relationship between Doc and Hendrix, where Doc played as Hendrix’s alter-father.

In the opening scenes, the handheld camera work reissues a strikingly familiar approach to digital cinema cinematography in the Philippines. We have seen this in the films of Brillante Mendoza, a cinematographic tradition in Philippine independent scene marked a gritty aesthetic of social realism and mobile camera deployed in long take sequences. In the same film, we also see a type of mannerism typical of conventional filmmaking that involves steady framing, staging and shot/reverse shot. It shows that the film is working on some kind of rhythm, juxtaposing the slow pace of everything life and the sense of urgency of the urban life.

One can see that the film is keen on expressing spatiality through its mise-en-scene. It grounds its world, like any digital Philippine independent film, through a generous and purposeful use of long take. In one of the key scenes, Doc (Dindo Dela Paz) is narrating his own tragedy. Doc stares into the camera as if in a double talk with both the audience and Hendrix. Doc’s figura, at this point, becomes proto-historical. He dallies between his simple-minded character and his figuration as a historical entity from the Martial Era descending upon us, presenting the harsh facts of that era we must not forget.

It is also noticeable that the film has no attempt to construct a traditional family. The relationship between Hendrix and his sister Connie is conflicted due to the predominant presence of Mando, his sister’s lover, who runs the family household being the only family figure who can provide daily sustenance via drug trade. Hendrix, as the youngest family member, is alienated from Mando’s incapacity to connect with Hendrix beyond being his drug courier. Their relationship is nil and dysfunctional, which bring us to the film’s attempt to craft Doc as a father figure.

In one instance, Doc caught Hendrix stealing money from him to fund his next entry into the Fliptop Rap Battle competition. This led Doc to confront Hendrix not only for stealing his money but also for stealing his poetry. This eventually added a new dimension to their relationship. Though unrelated by blood and only connected by chance, Hendrix and Doc forge a master-apprentice relationship. Doc offered to teach Hendrix the importance of establishing his own voice as a rap artist-as-poet. The film slowly banks on this narrative track. Hendrix, truly motivated to win the Fliptop battle, has redeemed his composure with a renewed sense of hope. However, a sudden turn of events led the film to a harrowing conclusion: that, in this time and place in Philippines society, one cannot escape the clutches of poverty.

Like the harrowing ending of Lino Brocka’s Manila in the Claws of Light (1975), Respeto’s method of showing indignation to the injustices committed by lumpenized class suggest that it cannot be shown by verbalizing a protest, but through a perplexed act of violence. This is more or less the film’s way of trying to reach an ethical formulation that fascism in the Philippines can only be addressed through a personal attack, an act of revenge. This personalized view of violence is rather vague and weak, leading the film into a rabbit hole of moral ambiguity, unable to engage dialectically with the on-going class war of Philippine society. Until the end, Respeto’s critical viewpoint of Philippine society, like countless works in Philippine Independent cinema, remains unclear and dull.

Respeto is showing on July 14 at the New York Asian Film Festival.