lawrence fajardo

Swelter, Sizzle, Boom
by Jansen Musico

Amok (2011)
D: Lawrence Fajardo
S: Mark Gil, Nonie Buencamino, Gary Lim, Dido Delapaz

There is a popular Pinoy novelty rhyme that would best sum up the Amok experience: “Shit! Sobrang init! Abot singit! (Shit! It’s so hot! It’s reaching my crotch!)” Lawrence Fajardo’s Cinemalaya entry generates enough heat to make his audience’s balls sweat. The opening sequence places the viewers in the middle of Pasay Rotonda on what I assume is a hectic Baclaran Wednesday. The streets are heavily congested, the traffic is suffocating, the sun is merciless (evidenced by the copious amounts of sweat drenching the characters’ armpits), and the blaring noises all around are unbearable. Every little detail put together is enough to make anyone’s blood boil. It’s the perfect setting for anyone to run amok.

The film makes use of a multi-character narrative, with distinct mini stories ricocheting off one another. There is a father and son eagerly waiting to go to the province, workers killing time playing pool, a barbecue vendor nagging her little girl, and other small, interesting story arcs with bit players waiting for that one incident that would tie them all up together—a wild shooting spree care of a vengeful gunman.

The fact that this kind of film was ever shot in a place that would imaginably be a producer’s worst nightmare is a feat. It takes guts to create something so complex in a location that’s so volatile. Perhaps this is why Amok worked well as a finished piece. Aside from all the colorful figures plucked out from Pasay’s thoroughfare, the locale itself became the most important character; the filmmakers made sure to weave it in. This shouldn’t take away any merit from the actors, though. Some gave very impressive performances.

One of the most noteworthy appearances is that of Mark Gil’s. Fajardo and Gil have a director-actor relationship that just clicks every time they work together, and that is carried over here. Gil goes all-out as a washed-up two-bit action star stuck in his short-lived glory days. His arc was very brief, but still insanely hilarious. It’s a welcome break, painting some light in this dark and suspenseful comedy-drama.

Unlike those of many films in the same genre, Amok’s suspense isn’t so reliant on the element of surprise. It is the careful pacing which makes it so effective. As if a kettle of water placed on a stove, the movie is made to heat, steam, and boil into a loud whistle. Amok starts off slow with a stretched drag and then gradually picks up its pace until the audience is finally treated to a flurry of intertwined events. This is the film’s greatest strength, but it’s also its weakness. Since movies, in general, are basically split in three acts—beginning, middle, and end—the conclusions of all the little stories, which were all so meticulously fleshed out during the first act, felt so rushed. Some of which even seemed they lacked a finality that would place a period on their running tales. Whether it was the filmmakers’ intention to leave some things open-ended, I cannot truly say. Maybe it was? The film treats its audience like voyeurs eavesdropping on private conversations. We, the audience, get involved, and that’s what makes it engaging. But just like eavesdropping, we get cut off without warning, and we’re left to meander with the ideas we gathered.

Technically, the film was good, but for a person aware of the setting’s geography, mentally placing each of the characters in the environment was a tad bit confusing. The strong, crisp visuals, and the witty play of on-screen elements made up for any negligible faults. Though the film is about running amok, everything played out with such precision. It’s organized chaos, a good counterpoint for the film’s subject matter.

Pelikula Q&A: Amok
Jansen Musico with director Lawrence Fajardo

Pelikula: You did Kultado in Cinemalaya ‘05. Then you tried you luck in Cinema One Originals. Why did it take so long before you decided to come back and actually compete in Cinemalaya this year?
Lawrence: It took me awhile to make a comeback film for Cinemalaya because I had to wait for a script that would actually fit my style and suits my voice as a director. I feel that as an artist, I know myself better now.

Pelikula: In the past years you also helped out in the Cinemalaya entries Colorum and Rekrut. Tell us something about those.
Lawrence: Helping out in Rekrut and Colorum has allowed me to collaborate with friends. The director of Colorum, Jobin Ballesteros is a very close friend. We always work together. Nagpapalit-palit lang kami ng job description tuwing may pelikula kaming dalawa. It’s always nice to help people realize their dreams in a collaborative medium such as film. Today, I may be the director, but tomorrow, I may be the editor or assistant director… It’s always important to remember that no matter what our roles are, we are all part of a film community. We are all bound by our common passion for film… Life in this industry never gets boring as long as you keep reaching out to both your fellow filmmakers and your audience. Cinemalaya is the perfect venue for that.

Pelikula: Why do a film like Amok?
Lawrence: Amok was a script that has very personal roots. I have seen a family member running amok when I was young. Family members and passersby would go inside their houses and run for cover due to immense fear. My attempt is to examine the emotions and the psychological state of people who are pushed to the edge and go berserk. It makes me wonder: What baggages do they carry that make them so volatile?

It was conceived a year ago. My filmmaker-friend Ron Bryant talked about it. Ron, was the one who did the first draft. Writer John Bedia, and creative consultant Paul Sta. Ana and I worked together to elevate the film’s discourse to a more sophisticated one. With several revisions (nine, to be exact) that eventually led to the changing of the milieu. My team wanted to push the limits of the story further by making a statement about violence and how injustice can make it a vicious cycle.

Pelikula: You’re working with Mark Gil again. What is it about him, as an actor, that made you pick him for your films?
Lawrence: I was given a chance to direct  Mark Gil way back in 2007. After two films with him, Liwanag sa Dilim and Raket ni Nanay, we realized that we had chemistry and a good working relationship. I always thought that Mark always fits in my films. He is the Robert de Niro to my Martin Scorsese.

I can always do what I want to do with Mark. He is one actor that would still push himself and do things that I tell him not to do! And it usually turns out better than what I had imagined, or at the very least, he gives me an interesting take. It’s always a pleasure working with Mark. He takes you to territories you wouldn’t even want to go. It is a spontaneous trek that allows us both to explore and learn from the experience of controlled lunacy and creativity.

Bring Me the Head of Jestoni Biag
by Don Jaucian

Posas (Shackled, 2012)
D: Lawrence Fajardo
S: Nico Antonio, Art Acuna, Jake Macapagal, Susan Africa

Intent on exposing the grime and the sweltering underbelly of Manila, Law Fajardo takes us to Quiapo in Posas. Quiapo holds a strange mix of fanatical reverence and repulsiveness, a reservoir of crooks, fortune tellers, and religious devotees. It becomes a playground for small-time thieves like Jestoni Biag (Nico Antonio), who play Robin Hood to their families by pickpocketing phones and selling them to sidewalk vendors for a fraction of their market price. It’s a way of life that’s already embedded in the narrow walkways of Quiapo, an unwritten truth that should appear in the margins of every Manila guidebook. But a fateful turn will find Jestoni robbed of his freedom and even the sound of the jail doors being unlocked will mean a harsher life ahead.

Posas unravels a tangled web of corruption that exists in our society in different degrees. Its characters make up the stock of its stereotypical world that burns with the myth of the bad cop that gives law enforcement the worst rap conceivable. There’s Grace (Bangs Garcia), the victim who wants to get her iPhone back lest an incriminating video showing her with a married lover turn into a viral video, and there’s the Kingpin police figure Inspector Domingo (menacingly portrayed by Art  Acuña), whose office is as rife with criminals as the inside of the jailhouse is. His officers make a pass on Grace while straddling themselves with authoritarian and bureaucratic limitations, and as they crack Jess open (both literally and figuratively), the slogan “To serve and protect” that lines their vehicles dissolve into a puddle of words devoid of any of its original virtues.

Fajardo follows a procedural so tedious it becomes a long winding descent much like a day at any government agency. The film relies too much on its expose but never delves deeper into the depths of the moral bankruptcy it readily presents. Bursts of energy spike the film (like the intense chase scene in the streets of Quiapo), but they are never enough to flesh out the dark world that Fajardo has been so keen in exploring.

While it’s unfair to compare Posas with Fajardo’s better-received Amok, it’s the latter’s intense meditation on a world gone wrong that also forms the crux of the former. It’s Amok’s fractured build-up that has made it such a thrilling ride, never mind its terse scrutiny that has all been done before. This is something that Posas lacks. Its tale is something we have all been familiar with and have been told in different forms. 

It’s only Art Acuña’s Domingo that brings the nightmarish atmosphere into the film. Here is a man who goes through the loopholes of the system, tying ends for his nefarious ways. His case casts a greater evil that exists in the background of the film: voices that orchestrate crimes at the other end of the line. It’s this truth that makes Posas a compelling look into the chaos that surrounds us: that there is a bear trap lying in the seediest parts of the city, waiting for us to take a wrong turn so it could introduce us to a new circle of hell. 

The Overdue Twist
by Jansen Musico

The Strangers (2012)
D: Lawrence Fajardo
S: Enchong Dee, Julia Montes, Cherry Pie Picache, Janice de Belen, Enrique Gil, JM De Guzman

There is something unsettling about Lawrence Fajardo’s The Strangers that has nothing to do with the horror it tries to create, but has everything to do with the way it is drawn out. Following the template of road trips gone awry, the film introduces a squabbling family stranded in the woods of rural Luzon on the birthday of biological twins Pat (Julia Montes) and Max (Enrique Gil). There is danger lurking in the dark, they are repeatedly told. What it is becomes the film’s central mystery.

Fajardo creates a lush yet suffocating labyrinth filled with suspicious townsfolk, an even more suspicious straggler (Enchong Dee), crude booby traps, and quadrupedal monsters. He leaves just enough room for the family to move around and fills the remaining void with an air of uncertainty. For a while, this sticks, as Fajardo introduces clue after misleading clue and scare after cheap scare, elicited from shock cuts and an overbearing soundtrack. But the suspense doesn’t hold well as the film’s gimmicks begin to give way to its too thinly stretched twist, betrayed by too many foreshadowing devices.

When the twist is finally revealed, there are no surprises. There is just the question of how it will end. Gory sequences are thrown in, followed by a few moments of flair from Cherry Pie Picache and Janice de Belen. Once the finale is reached, we are left with nothing but botched expectations and a vat full of surplus filler.