In Ian Ganazon and Neill dela Llana’s terrific thriller, Cavite, the Filipino American filmmakers take the tired cliches of the genre and craft an exceptional film. The plot isn’t anything you haven’t seen before, from Cellular to Red Eye (the only one I’ve seen of the four) to Nick of Time to Phone Booth: a man receives a call on a cellphone from a kidnapper, telling him that his mother and sister has been kidnapped and that he has to follow all the kidnapper’s demands or they die. The result is a surprisingly politically complex and gripping suspense movie, made even more interesting for its being set in the Philippines.
What Cavite will also be remembered for is the astonishing constraints under which the film was made: an overall budget of less than $7,000, cameras resold on eBay to pay for editing (which was done completely on a home computer), a practically two-man cast and crew. (Two weeks before they were to fly to the Philippines, they still couldn’t find a lead actress who wanted to accompany them, so they rewrote the script so that Ganazon could play the protagonist, with dela Llana holding the camera the whole time.)
Formally, the film is a marvel in its economy — actor, disembodied voice, circling camera — and the narrative is structured in the classic three-act fashion. Cavite is also clearly more than just a jittery travelogue. As the taunting kidnapper orders Adam to walk through twisted alleyways, crowded markets, squatter camps, and rivers choking with festering garbage, it is clear that he (and the audience) is receiving a political education as well.
The film, however, provides little historical or economic context for the poverty that Adam witnesses, and it is presented as almost being “endemic” to the area. A later scene where the kidnapper gives him a history lesson on the gross injustices experienced by Muslim Filipinos isn’t exactly germane to what Adam sees in Cavite. (We get a possible glimpse of this in two clever digressions from the taut narrative: the camera breaks away momentarily to follow a boy buying a McDonald’s meal for his grandmother, but one of these scenes ingeniously happens at a point when filming may have been impossible.) But we begin to understand, at least, the process of radicalization for the Muslim kidnapper, as we find out halfway through the film that he is a member of the Abu Sayyaf (I’m not spoiling anything here, as this is telegraphed in the opening credits).
Cavite could also be read as quite intelligently following the stereotypical plot as seen in your average Pilipino Cultural Night — confused Filipino American in search of self, “returns” to the Philippines, and discovers one’s self. What further animates this thriller, and elevates it from the genre, is the interweaving of the theme of cultural discovery. (Indeed, the movie could be seen as a suspense-thriller twist on the ethnic-identity film genre, and not the other way around.) Filipino American youth — perhaps like the filmmakers themselves — would no doubt find familiar tropes here, tweaked and heightened: the dizzying confusion, the humidity, the shock of the misery of the Third World, the bewilderment of a half-understood foreign/native language, the balut offered up as a kind of culinary litmus test. The filmmakers make perfect use of the staring bystanders; Adam’s incongruity as he trudges through Cavite City is perhaps only a little less jarring than the presence of the two filmmakers themselves.
In the end, it is significant that the action takes place in the province of Cavite, where Emilio Aguinaldo first proclaimed the independence of the Philippine Republic from Spain. The Muslims of the Philippines, however, failed to receive, and continue to do so, the benefits and rights of any form of independence, and the events in Mindanao of the last three decades certainly bear witness to this.
(What makes the film rather politically problematic, on a couple of different levels, is the decision the protagonist makes, and the way the kidnapper is portrayed. Arguably, however, the filmmakers shroud this in moral ambiguity, depending on how one interprets the opening shot. But unfortunately, any further discussion would spoil the film for you folks, so perhaps any spoilers should be mentioned — and explicitly designated so! — in the comments, if any of you readers have seen the film…)