What may be lacking in contemporary Philippine cinema is an interrogation of violence. Save for one documentary, the Philippine Cinema scene seems to actively avoid the topic or the theme. The avoidance is so apparent that even attempts to make an action film compelling to watch fails. It is in this context that Darryl Yap’s latest Vivamax work, Sarap Mong Patayin, stands out as it treads a field that no one before has dared to enter. And this is, perhaps, historical.
The plot is quite simple: the connivance between Noel (Lassie Marquez) and Krista (Ariella Arida) to catfish someone Noel interacted with on a dating platform has gone wrong. Their victim, Yael (Kit Thompson) reacted against Noel’s sexual advances which resulted with Noel and Krista being violated. The plot is thin, really, but this helps Sarap Mong Patayin present a cinematic interrogation of the violence that transpired, with the help of the three dancing figures of a synthesis between the mother-mary figure and the power rangers the film refers to as “sumpong.”
Save for the film’s conscious observation of mental health awareness propaganda, Sarap Mong Patayin interrogates its violence unapologetically and without filters. What made the film historical comes also from this unapologetic attitude: its characters’ decadence, stemming from their class-origins, would have been salvaged by films done by the indies prior to this one. Yap made use of this decadence to further insist on hitting the nail on its head. There is nothing to salvage here, no character to root for. This is no pretense also for a general commentary. The film’s very plasticity, which is already on-the-nose, made everything so contrived that it locks in its world, and by extension what we see, into the confines of this little world of exclusive club parties with accessible cocaine.
We are introduced to a world where what troubles people is not everyday violence, but the momentary discomforts from their own bubbles. Yael, whose violent outbursts are a product of a repressed childhood trauma, exercised his rage at the moment where his little fantasies were halted by a triggering prayer. But Sarap Mong Patayin did not make an excuse of Yael’s trauma for his violence. Yael’s rage is not merely a product of his fragile psyche: he’s pretty much conscious of what he has done, and the film made it clear that he’s not the victim here.
In fact, in the classic Darryl Yap nihilism, no one is a victim here. Everyone is guilty. Sarap Mong Patayin uses the sumpong, making them present for everyone, making each of the characters equally guilty of what they have done.
The sumpong is an interesting element. The term itself refers to a momentary outburst of negative emotions. The fact that the three sumpongs dance refer to it in the more common connotation of the term as something that is cute. This, perhaps, is the contradiction that Sarap Mong Patayin tries to engage its interrogation of violence with. The sumpongs are almost omnipresent, they are of three colors but never of different behaviors. They all support the characters in whatever that they are doing, even in the process of killing other people.
With those interrogations in mind, Sarap Mong Patayin shares something with the post-9/11 gore films in the west. They are working mostly as symptoms of the historical violence that they found themselves in. It is almost apparent that the Hostel series to the Human Centipede series are all superstructural reflections of the post-9/11 world that they are in and are contained in themselves both fear and fascination of the monsters that they face. With Sarap Mong Patayin, it is symptomatic of the post-Tokhang condition: a symptom of bourgeois impunity presented as bourgeois suffering. The post-Tokhang symptom makes one believe that we are all suffering the same, in as much as we are all equally guilty: trapped within the pandemic, one finds themselves confined in their own bubble with built up stress and middle-class fear that overwhelms and fascinates at the same time. Add to it the suspicion against information technology while being reliant to it. This, in the case of Sarap Mong Patayin, it may just be one of the first that critiques this post-Tokhang impunity that does not just allude to some boogeyman figure.
Darryl Yap’s Sarap Mong Patayin may just be the first film that is a real product of the Duterte Era. That is, a film which does not allude to anything from a past “better” life before the Duterte administration. Yap has always been a post-dilawan/disente filmmaker-writer and it is shown in most of his works, but Sarap Mong Patayin is a complete expression of rupture from past cinematic expressions, away from the anomaly that is hugot.
Let’s do a quick survey of Philippine Cinema’s response to the Duterte Administration.
Perhaps the most common response from Filipino narrative filmmakers is to touch upon bourgeois humanism to judge the situation. There are morality plays such as Adolfo Alix’s Madilim ang Gabi or Erik Matti’s Buybust. Brillante Mendoza gave the most nuanced take on these morality plays with Amo. Even Lav Diaz responded with some of his more heftily funded works such as Ang Panahon ng mga Halimaw. But such morality plays are kept within the ideological confines of the cultural elites of the former liberal administration, often with a hint of nostalgia and guilt-tripping.
Other responses, such as Dustin Celestino’s Utopia, Mikhail Red’s Neomanila, and Diaz’ Ang Hupa, seem to get their seemingly ‘anti-fascist’ remarks confused with their westernized fantasies of dystopia – and that is coupled, again with a nostalgic fantasy that there was a past that was better. (Well, in the case of Diaz, was a post-traumatic hysteria of a Marcosian regime).
Since Duterte seems to be the only villain in these narratives, it is not surprising that Duterte partisans also appear in the cinematic scene such as Dinky Doo and Njel De Mesa.
But these are merely reactions towards tokhang. Majority of Philippine Cinema seems to pretend that they are still living in a different time. We can recognize how in the latter part of the 2000s, where a barrage of romantic comedies occupies most of the screens. On the margins, bourgeois interpretation of poverty or just plainly, exploration of bourgeois life and insights have been gaining traction in “arthouse” festival spaces until they began mainstreaming by the mid-2010s. This later developed in the flatness that is hugot, which peaked in the Duterte era. While efforts for development of regional cinema happened during these years, it became apparent that it’s mostly for the federalistic interest of the superstructure that Dutertismo has built.
Of course, an inevitable synthesis between the very urbanistic focus of hugot and regionalism also reached the regions. Hugot is an easy sell, especially when it allowed an expression for class impunity. Hugot allowed violence to be internalized with self-loathing as new escapism. But the insistence of Duterte’s federalist agenda through NCCA’s Cinema Rehiyon perhaps brought a renewed confidence to the regions just as when Manila films began falling further into reactionary cynicism. Darryl Yap’s films may just be a product of this synthesis: their Vincentiments shorts are formalistically hugot pumped to the extreme that fronted more the confidence of a regional filmmaker, unfiltered by Manila Indie intervention unlike the Binisaya films.
This synthesis informs Sarap Mong Patayin strongly and in a more mature tone. Yap does away with the timing lapses that the hugot form does to his older work to make way for a more sleek and rhythmic exposition. This approach gave way for the sumpong to be more than the three weirdos on screen: the rhythm of the film itself is “sumpungin” with an mixture of momentary bursts of negative energy. It is with this form that the film resonated better with the whole complexity of the world after tokhang, that of a downward spiral enabled by tantrums, trauma mixed with a sense of perverted confidence.
In the earlier version of the documentary Beastmode that I saw back in 2016, a commentary was placed on the so-called banality of violence in everyday life. How violence became acceptable in everyday life, the documentary will claim, is this so-called “spectacularization of violence.” Part of this claim for banality is the proliferation of home video footage of fist fights uploaded online that reach thousands of views. And as we know from the news, this led the documentary with a project, a “social experiment,” that culminated with a mixed-martial art special event. The project attempted to expand their critique to Duterte’s oplan tokhang as itself, being on the news for the earlier parts of the Duterte administration, is suspect to this so-called spectacularization.
And as I mentioned in a writing about it half a decade ago, the experiment explodes on their faces.
Granted, that there’s indeed a banality of violence, this isn’t because there is a spectacularization of it. Far from it, as I already pointed out: the capitalist expropriation of labor power, being the worst and most common iteration of ruling class violence, is mostly unspectacular, in a sense that it’s mostly “invisible.” The mainstream media has no interest in interrogating it. The military and private armies do the best they can to keep its images off anybody’s screens.
Tokhang is mainly its surplus: it’s nothing but another way for the retention of the capitalist order in the urban areas. Tokhang kept the vagrants off the streets for the benefit of street rehabilitation: which includes road widenings, beautification projects, and “development projects” that convert communities into commercial lands. The fact is that tokhang, despite its massive resources, never really touched drug lords. Its “intelligence” work is mostly down to listing a watchlist of users and sellers from the streets. Tokhang isn’t a “spectacularization” of violence: it is an erasure of a particular class in the urban spaces to replace them with empty boxes of concrete high rises. If there’s anything spectacularly violent, these are the business districts. Tokhang is the bridge to the actual spectacular violence: Duterte’s Build Build Build.
In some ways, Sarap Mong Patayin initiates this bridging between erasure of the proletariat of the screen and the spectacle of Build Build Build. This isn’t to say that it started the actual erasure. Hugot is what made the normalization of the erasure of working classes in cinema at the expense of middle-class and bourgeois self-expression. What Yap did with his cinema is to bridge what hugot has started in an attempt to make its bourgeois characters face the Real of their existence. That what lies in Krista, Noel and Yael’s fun and sexual exploits is a horrifying base founded on creepy bourgeois impunity for long. That it can no longer be contained in the framework of decency, it flips showing the other side of the coin. That what really is this current condition, but a continuity of the Aquino Disente ideology exposed with its perverted side a liberal sexual decadence. Where Yap left it finally to sever the bridge lies within a seemingly self-conscious attitude for self-critical exploration of these extremes, making it seem that this is more common than you think.
Recent offerings of VIvamax such as Sarap Mong Patayin at the very least expose to us how beneficial it is for cinematic expression that no board of censors dictate what should or should not be on the screen. This is probably one of the best things about our shift to exclusively web-based film distribution for now that MTRCB do not have a control over what a privately-owned web platform can show.