The title Nabubulok (The Decaying) can refer to several things in this Cinemalaya 2017 entry: the decaying smell emanating from the Harper house, the decaying of the house where they live, the decaying of relationships that are cracked anyway, the decaying of Philippine society.
On the surface, the story revolves around a suspected crime: Luna Harper (Sue Prado) is missing and no one in his family is saying anything. The neighbors suspect her American husband Jason (Billy Ray Gallion) of killing her. However, there is no body--but the whispers and side glances persist.
First-time film director Sonny Calvento begins this story, based on true events, by drawing the audience into a voyeuristic gaze on Jason and Paul Harper (Jameson Blake) carrying out some suspect activity. Throughout the film, they are never seen away from this public eye, with at least one set of eyes following them.
By first establishing that there is “something rotten in the state of Denmark,” to borrow a quote from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the audience is made complicit in the act somehow--whether it be in the supposed crime or in condemning someone of a crime even before it has been proven. Direk Sonny plants a seed of unease in the audience too. This is not a simple whodunit, we are not just on a ride to find out what happened. It’s more than that.
That is why the wailing of Ingrid (Gina Alajar) that there is something amiss is taken up by Albert (Lito Pimentel) and addressed to Rommel (JC Santos), who is in a position to find out more.
As the web of people involved builds around the Harper house and therefore, family, the suspect becomes the hunted--and the eyes become trained on Jason and the whispers become statements until they become screams.
The aforementioned cast members masterfully involve us in the community. They are so natural—Gina could be your labandera, JC could pass off as your suki tricycle driver. The audience may vacillate between passing judgment on Jason and doubting whether it is only xenophobia (deep-rooted fear towards foreigners) clawing up from beneath the surface.
For most of the film, Billy Ray seems to be just a typical American playing the role of an American in the Philippines, until a few minutes before the climax when, in a scene bereft of dialogue and almost soundless amid the flurry outside, he shows a vulnerability and the personification of a caged bird with nowhere to go and no way to get out.
A pivotal scene tests Neil Daza’s masterful cinematography and Joris Fernandez’s firm editing. At the gala premiere screening, those precious few minutes went painfully slow, tensions grew, as moviegoers were kept on the edge of their seats until the theater erupts with screams from the crowd. It could very well be the best sequence in the entire film.
Cinematographer Daza is at his best, making use of light and dark and highlighting as necessary: letting the sun highlight the colors of the local fiesta, and lighting just enough in the darkness to show JC Santos’ facial expressions, then later shining a light behind a subject to only reveal a silhouette.
The supporting cast and other bit characters stand out in the film as well.
Jameson has a few lines but he sheds the teeny-bopper, matinee idol persona for this serious character. Dannah Cardoza and Krystal Mejes, who play Paul’s sisters Ann and April, play their characters beyond the mestizas-with-accents mold and elicit empathy for their complicated lives.
Lao Rodriguez plays the police chief, tethering between upright and maybe just a little sinister and sleazy underneath--but never one side over the other. A young woman from the community elicited howling laughter for her pikit-mata-kagat-labi delivery of this line: “Magpapa-free taste na ako kay Pedring”--that made Gina Alajar laugh.
A policeman who engages in a verbal duel with Gina Alajar holds his own and even shifts abruptly to a humorous line that elicits chuckles from moviegoers.
Nabubulok thrills as a crime film, but it also trains an eye around and inward at how our society acts and reacts today, and it is very Filipino in taking a stab at humor between the drama and suspense.
Nabubulok is one of the entries of Cinemalaya 2017, which is ongoing until August 13. It is being screened at the Cultural Center of the Philippines and Ayala Malls cinemas namely Greenbelt 1, Glorietta 4, UP Town Center, TriNoma, Fairview Terraces, and Marquee Mall in Pampanga.
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.