Graceland

Philippines (2012) Dir. Ron Morales

The things we do for the ones we love. Unfortunately, for some people these are trumped by what they do for themselves, and the result is usually messy. Put the two together and you have this low budget but skilfully provocative drama from the Philippines that explores two different sides to human morality.

Marlon Villar (Arnold Reyes) has been working for corrupt congressman Manuel Changho (Menggie Cobarrubias) for eight years, yet lives a meagre life with daughter Elvie (Ella Guevara) whilst wife Lina (Angeli Bayani) is in hospital waiting for an organ transplant. As Changho’s driver, Marlon is tasked with picking up and dropping off the underage girls his boss sleeps with, until somehow the story is leaked to the press, and blaming Marlon for the leak, Changho fires him.

Whilst skipping school, Elvie and Changho’s daughter Sophia (Patricia Ona Gayod) swap their uniforms but Marlon catches them and drives them home when they are stopped by a kidnapper disguised as a policeman. Elvie is mistaken for Sophia, who is shot, and taken hostage. Marlon is told Changho has to pay 2 million pesos ransom. Still believing Marlon is involved, Changho bribes Detective Ramos (Dido de la Paz) to take the case but the kidnappers are too smart for them.

It is quite hard to summarise the plot for Graceland as a redacted version won’t do it justice, yet there is a limit to what details one leaves out because everything, no matter how small, is vital to the story. Ron Morales has a plenitude of film credits to his name but as a rank and file crewmember only, so his leap from grip to the writer and director’s chair is a vertiginous one.

Despite the obvious low budget and DSLR photography, Morales aims higher than these  financial constraints, putting everything into the story and its execution, and by the time the and credits roll, you’ll have forgotten this wasn’t a major studio affair. In fact, I’d be so bold as to suggest its low-key production value make it far grittier and more realistic than had Morales afforded a RED camera, sweeping musical score, and glamorous cast.

Since filmmaking experts always say “the story is key” it is therefore important we focus on this as in the case of Graceland, the story is everything. At first it appears to tick off a number of genre conventions and tropes – the corrupt employer, the put upon employee, the sick wife, vulnerable daughter, etc. – but the moment Sophia is shot, the entire complexity changes and nothing is predictable anymore.

By rights, we should almost find the irony of the kidnapper accidentally shooting Sophia then demanding a ransom for her life ripe for a good laugh – instead we recoil in horror at the realisation an innocent girl is dead and another is being held hostage in her place. Not only that, but Marlon now has to encourage his erstwhile boss to fork out the reddies for Elvie knowing Changho’s daughter is dead.

It’s an uncomfortable dilemma to be faced with, and believe me when I say there is a LOT about this film which is uncomfortable, but Marlon chooses to follow suit from the kidnappers and keep the charade about Sophia being alive going. This should make Marlon as low as he kidnappers, but we have to remember he was unfairly fired earlier, so perhaps this is to teach Changho a lesson.

Yet this doesn’t make the situation any better for anyone. Marlon knows has to live with this guilt, knowing his moral compass is now spinning off the dial, just as his paedophile employer’s is. Ironically, Visel (Leon Miguel) the kidnapping ringleader, might be the most morally sound of the lot, which makes no sense but that is exactly why it is ironic, once the purpose of his actions are revealed.

The story continues to unfold with a twist at every corner, leaving everyone standing in a pool of their metaphoric filth, something Morales visualises with a vast rubbish dump he instructs Marlon to dump the car with Sophia’s body in the boot. A totally unflattering last resting place, but apt for the principal players who are destined to end up here as a result of their lies and misdeeds.

Morales is not just targeting political and police corruption, and askewed morality, nor is this a polemic for those at the bottom of the social ladder, Changho’s deviance is a vessel to highlight the nadir of the Philippines sex trade, where age is no concern when it comes to satiating the male libido. How it is presented here should appal and upset, and whilst the actress was over 18, I didn’t need to see a 13 year-old girl fully naked to drive the point home, yet I can see why Morales felt it was cogent in striking a nerve.

Viewed in context of the cascading lies and duplicity of the main cast, these scenes are the most raw because of their candour and frankness, and it serves a purpose within the plot. However, the damage has been done and those involved are now forced to live with the consequences which is the film’s central message asking the question: would you have done things any differently?

I suspect most people would but a story like this needs telling to give us that perspective to hold our own moral judgement up against. Kudos to Morales for having the conviction to craft such an intelligent, sinuous yet gnarly story, and to his cast who embrace the challenge of portraying this ostensible rogues gallery of flawed human beings. Arnold Reyes’ essaying of Marlon’s tortured emotion is a compelling counter the pomposity of Menggie Cobarrubias’ Changho.  

Graceland is the definition of a hidden gem, as disturbing and sobering as it is. Along with giving us food for thought, it hints at what a cinematic force Morales could be with major support. Available now on Amazon Prime UK.