Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Jun 23, 2018 3:35 pm 
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The Philippines seeks a voice and finds a cycle of violence

Respeto begins as a hiphop coming-of-age movie, a sort of Filipino Eight Mile whose protagonist, Hendrix (Abra), comes from the very poor down-and-dirty world of the Pandacan slums, the underside of Manila, in which underground rap is the new anthem-maker. But first time filmmaker Alberto Monteras II has things to say about every aspect of the Philippines. Rap is only one voice of a story about politics and society. The oppressive Duterte regime is awakening in older Filipinos horrifying memories of the days of Marcos' dictatorship they thought they had gotten rid of. Monteras and his cowriter Njel De Mesa weave this movie into a powerful myth of ongoing conflict and cruelty.

Petty crime brings Hendrix close to Doc (Dido De La Paz), one of those older Filipinos, a bookseller and protest poet during Marcos, whom Hendrix first tries to rob and then adopts as a mentor. It turns out Doc was a practitioner of balagtasan, a Filipino art of debate conducted in verse, so he was a kind of ancestor rapper.

Hendrix lives with his sister Connie (Thea Yrastorza) and her boyfriend Mando (Brian Arda), and robs the latter to have money to enter the big local "Versus" rap contest, the movie's first big noisy vérité scene, since like Eight Mile, real rappers are used. He goes first, so we know he's going to lose. He fails miserably, trying to better a large female rapper opponent Luxuria with crude fat jokes. She easily destroys him and he is so daunted he pisses himself, which makes him notorious.

Then with his sidekicks Betchai (Chai Fonacier) and Payaso (Yves Bagadion) he conceives the idea of robbing Doc to repay his sister's boyfriend. Thus another world enters his life. The movie is in no hurry. Gradually it emerges that 'Drix's sister and boyfriend are selling drugs and use him as their runner. Getting to know Doc through repairing damage they cause breaking in, Hendrix steals a notebook of poetry and uses lines for his raps. But Doc, who may have early stage dementia, and turns out to have suffered traumatically under Marcos, is watching Hendrix and sees worth in him.

As we learn more about Doc he reveals that his family was abused by Marcos' government thugs and though he smashed one of them in the head with a rock, it felt ineffectual. A parallel was struck early on when at a club Hendrix sees his love Candy (Kate Alejandrino) raped by his perfidious rival Breezy G (Loonie) and can do nothing to stop it. And this mirrors the nation forced to watch impotent as two brutal regimes wreck havoc. In this context while rap contests like Versus are clearly a place where the urban poor can raise a loud voice, they're not seen as saving anything but instead, like the current regime, only play with more conflict, the drug lords bringing awful violence, and the vicious cycle going on.

Sometimes Respeto seems mired in the vulgarity and crude humor of a third world B-picture. On the other hand local reviewers fall into the airy generalizations of a term paper. It's hard to explain how Monteras welds mud into a meaningful shape, and his movie is so deeply vernacular no outsider can appreciate the message of its constant wordplay. But imperfect as it is, Respeto has more meaning and emotion in it than other more polished entries in the festival, and means a great deal to many Filipino viewers.

From Susan Claire Agbayani in Rappeler we learn that "National Artist for Literature Bienvenido Lumbera, and poets Vim Nadera (who had a cameo in the Balagtasan scene in the movie), Frank Rivera and Mark Angeles contributed poems to the film," as well as that actual Filipino rappers Mike Swift, Apekz, Abbaddon, J Skeelz, Mike Kosa and M-Zhayt and female rap artist Luxuria" perform in the Versus scenes speaking their own lines.

This feisty little movie won several awards including Best Picture at the Cinemalaya Philippine Independent Film Festival and received a ten-minute standing ovation Aug. 2017, and was released theatrically in the Philippines in Sept. 2017. It surprised and pleased the filmmakers by also winning awards at Cyprus, and it gained more international attention with a Rotterdam screening. It was screened for this review as part of NYAFF, where it shows at 7:30 p.m. on 14 July 2018.

Poster by V.Aseo and M.Lazarte (from Esquire)

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