The opening set up could belong in any love story: a lonely girl spies a new guy moving into the same apartment building. Prime Cruz’s Ang Manananggal sa Unit 23B gives viewers a masterful portrayal of one of the most enduring ghouls in Philippine mythology.
From the first sequence, it already sets itself apart from stories featuring a manananggal. In fact, Ryza Cenon as Jewel could be any one, a random girl you meet on the street or pass as you go up or down your apartment building. Direk Prime humanizes the creature, giving her a conscience and a heart.
The script written by Prime Cruz and Jen Chuaunsu captures the emotions of moviegoers. It shows the motivations to the lead characters: Jewel, Nico (Martin del Rosario), and Lola (Vangie Labalan). So that we care about their daily small struggles of being lonely even when they are not alone. But it is not a flat, brooding movie. It has its comic moments, even some inside jokes, as well as a little suspenseful--with a lot of kilig along the way. The audience is taken on a pleasurable ride.
Credit must be given to the lead characters for their performances. Ryza is not only a pretty face or sex on a stick. She makes us empathize with Jewel’s loneliness and her inner struggle that transcends the regular angst brought about by heartache or having NBSB. She goes through the different nuances of emotion to show bitchiness, sadness, frustration, and even some joy.
Martin Del Rosario plays off Ryza’s character well. He holds a lot of promise, especially when he needs to show sadness or anger. It helps that he is a male lead with a good physique and looks to match Ryza onscreen.
Vangie Labalan is exquisite as the grandmother. She displays her natural talent, especially her comic timing. She reins in her fellow actors and takes the lead in delivering a scene from point A to B in a very enjoyable way. Her rapport with the two young leads is also very palpable.
The story draws on many of the myths ingrained in our culture as well as contemporary events to weave the story that translates well on-screen. Direk Prime obviously subscribes to the “show, don’t tell” philosophy and he is very adept at giving many visual cues that communicate emotions without words. For this, the editing by Galileo Te helped immensely. Save for a few, select scenes, the length and tempo are very well orchestrated.
The mise en scene shows attention to detail to communicate emotions. Even in the items that seem to be thrown aside, there are stories to be gleaned. The symbolism of the turtles, the balut are very well grounded in Philippine society and so, resonate with audiences. The production design by Nestor Abrogena and cinematography by Tey Clamor work to reveal, and hide and hint, about the characters in single shots. There is even one very striking and visually pleasing scene when the two leads are in the laundromat and the colors of the clothes in each machine spin and provide a backdrop akin to a stage setup behind them as they speak--both with words and words unspoken.
The soundtrack is also very notable, with the music providing a pop flavor to the film, but not overpowering it. There is a certain level of synchronicity between the scenes and the music that, though sometimes stumbles, is generally on-point.
The film is admirable in that it, for the large part, resisted the temptation to reveal the manananggal and have her fly around the city--a cliche but a staple that has made horror movies in he past cringe-worthy. Cruz masterfully plays it cool, showing blood, action and reaction shots, and hints, but does not, until near the end, reveal the mananggal’s signature half upper body and wings. This writer could have done without this reveal, though, as it plays into the cliche. However, the visual effects are excellent, including a bit of CGI for good measure.
Now, the controversial masturbation scene of Ryza Cenon. Taken in the context of the story and the masterful way that Ryza tackles this side of her character, plus the ingenious camera work that went along with it. Add the music to the mix and it delivers the climax of the movie.
Direk Prime Cruz gives us a glimpse of another side of the manananggal, with a lot of entertainment and introspection along the way. He shows immense control and talent as a director and writer.
Ang Manananggal sa Unit 23B is one of the official entries of the 2016 QCinema International Film Festival running until October 22 in Gateway, Robinsons Galleria, Trinoma, and UP Town Center.
(To learn more about the QCinema 2016 entries, read: Nora Aunor, Jaclyn Jose among stars featured in 2016 QCinema Film Festival)
Ed's Note: The 'PEP Review' section carries the views of individual reviewers, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the PEP editorial team.