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Film Review: Astig

July 28, 2009 8:59pm
In the landscape of Philippine cinema, Manila is always a place where danger or misfortune stalks its inhabitants. Its depiction in movies is that of a city that triumphs and tramples over the characters that are always at the border of defeat, barely thriving but at the same time striving to eke out a living. Fortunately or unfortunately, the same premise holds true in Astig, a full-length feature film directed by GB Sampedro. It is one of the ten films in competition in this year’s Cinemalaya, the Philippine Independent Film Festival.

The movie shares with us the stories of four young men: Ariel, Boy, Ronald, and Baste. Their decisions and actions in life will result in shattering consequences. Ariel, played by Dennis Trillo in his first indie movie, is a hustler who sells fake university diplomas and term papers along Recto. Trillo’s portayal here is by the book. His acting satisfies the checklist required of the role; however, something seems to be lacking. Because he’s playing a street-smart thug who preys on unsuspecting victims, his acting effectively shifts from looking innocent to playing it thoroughly rough, especially in that scene where he beats the hell out of a victim who asked for his money back. With a reputation in the mainstream movie industry as an actor who consistently delivers, Trillo seems to be holding back in portraying his character here.

As an expectant father, Boy, played by Edgar Allan Guzman, reluctantly engages in prostitution to pay for his wife’s hospital bills. Guzman delivers a memorable performance in two critical scenes: when he hesitantly succumbs to the dark side of the flesh trade, and when he first sees his newborn in the hospital bed beside his wife. In the hospital scene, Guzman effectively showed his character’s internal conflict when he intently looks at the baby and tears, borne of happiness and shame, rolled down his cheeks. In that scene, his character is both rescued and ruined.

Ronald, played by Arnold Reyes, is a Chinese mestizo from Zamboanga who goes to Manila to sell his inheritance: an abandoned building in Escolta. Reyes gives an adequate performance as a man who longs to move on from his dead father’s shadow. But his tale is a sad one because something happens that brings him to insanity.

Turning in a competent performance is Sid Lucero who plays Baste, the eldest brother of an OFW family who avenges the dishonor committed against his sister.

The movie gathers an ensemble of actors that deliver in the acting department, even those in supporting roles like Glaiza de Castro and Malou Crisologo. Ai Ai de las Alas, sans make-up, appears in a minor scene in a non-comedy role that she handled effectively.

The movie’s cinematography is remarkable, as captured by the shots of Sampedro and Odie Flores, the director of photography. The scenes were beautifully shot, sometimes too beautiful that it lacks the grit and sense of danger that the setting implies. Because of the episodic structure of the movie, Jerry Gracio’s screenplay does not allow the audience to become fully engaged in the main characters. There were also some minor characters that shouldn’t have been included in the narrative, to give more time for the lead characters to shine.

As a director, Sampedro’s vision of his characters’ locale -- Manila -- is rather glossy. Also, the movie’s characters cling to the stereotypes: the prostitutes (male and female), the sidewalk vendor, the thug, the shoplifter, the perverted old gay man, and the prayerful mother. Master filmmaker Lino Brocka showed us these characters thirty years ago, and with today’s new directors simply rehashing them, it seems as though nothing has changed about Manila (in movies, at least) in three decades. Is there nothing new about Manila in motion pictures but decay, danger, and the bleak characters that inhabit the place? New filmmakers seem to have a hard time walking away from the shadows of Brocka, at least when it comes to his cinematic vision of Manila.

Toward the end of the movie, it is revealed that the lives of the four lead characters are not mutually exclusive, as the audience is made to believe in the early parts. The movies Babel and Crash have taken this road before, to critical and commercial success. Therefore, in the storytelling aspect, Astig is not really giving us anything new. At best, Astig is a safe movie, and with popular mainstream actors in the cast or in supporting roles, it is not surprising that it’s one of the most watched movies in the festival.

It also won four awards at the end of the festival: Best Director for GB Sampedro, Best Supporting Actor for Arnold Reyes, Best Editing, and Best Sound Recording. - GMANews.TV
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