June 20, 2006


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...)

Posted by the wily filipino at June 20, 2006 01:49 PM

How very interesting. I'm actually from Cavite, though I'm not sure if I can be called Caviteno, since I don't even speak that language and am part Waray and Chinese anyway. The only Philippine language I can speak is Tagalog, or more accurately, Taglish. What can I say, being a 1.5 generation immigrant meant that I only received a grade 4 education in Tagalog.

I also find your blog in general to be interesting. I'm actually doing my Master's research on Filipino bloggers, which is how I ended up here. The Master's is in social anthro, which is kind of funny since I was exploring your blog last night and found out you were also an anthropologist. And you mention When Georges Woke Up Laughing and Power and Intimacy in the Christian Philippines, the first of which is on my reading list and the second I own.

You're clearly coming at things from an Ethnic Studies perspective as well, which is nice since more anthros and academics need to engage with the larger public anyway. Plus, applied anthro is always a good thing. I wonder, would you call yourself an anthroblogger? There's a small but growing community of such online.

Anyway, I think I'll be sticking around. I'm going to New York in late July/early August, do you know if Cavite will be showing in any theatres there during that period?

Posted by: Sarapen on June 21, 2006 11:35 AM

Hello Sarapen,

Thanks for your comments! No way I'd call myself an anthroblogger -- I write nowhere near the same level of academic discourse as Kerim Friedman and Co. on the Savage Minds blog.

I think Cavite's run two-week run in NY ended the other week, I'm afraid; hopefully it'll show up on DVD!

Posted by: the wily filipino on June 21, 2006 10:06 PM

nice review - could i link your review on our maarte blog?

Posted by: Erna on June 22, 2006 09:14 PM

First Asian-Am/Fil-Am movie I've enjoyed in the last what? ELEVEN YEARS??? (Terminal USA).

Posted by: brown on July 4, 2006 05:57 PM

I am from Cavite. I heard of this movie and looking forward to watching it. Tobinitz! how are you? can you email me your new email address? I lost it somehow.


Posted by: Maila on July 26, 2006 08:57 AM

I didn't really like the movie. I speak fluent Tagalog and the 'terrorist's" Tagalog wasn't even correct most of the time, he had a LOT of grammatical errors.

It poorly represents the nice parts of the Philippines. This, bothers me the most. It's bad enough that Filipinos in the United States have a stereotypical reputation as money and career whores, whose women are wives of white Navy men, and whose children are Honda Drivin' spoiled brats.

It unfairly raises a controversy that has been going on for decades in the Philippines: the Muslims vs Catholics.

Pretty good plot though but I think the problem was it was too amateur for a heavy controversy.

I was nauseous most of the time because the camera moved too much, it was worst than watching my husband play an RPG game.

If I have the time and effort, I'd make a movie about spoiled rich kids in the Philippines, how the little fuckers party, their spending habits, of dropping $400 easily just on a pair of designer jeans, whose parents are all politically connected who attends the richest schools and the ones who have Swiss Bank Accounts...in hopes to show how they negatively affect the country's poor.

And most of all, the dialogue will be perfect Tagalog, without any grammatical errors on it. But then again, the rich in the Philippines probably speak another European language besides English.

Now that would be interesting.

I know it's sad that a lot of Filipinos could attack me for saying this, you know put me down and tell me that I'm putting down their success for making it in the Independent Theatres.

There's almost a social stigma, of my not liking this film because it's made by, and is about Filipinos. Great they made it as artist/film makers, but they have to also learn that being an artist means you CANNOT please everybody. My not liking the film doesn't mean I'm jealous of their success. I could care less if a Filipino became the next American President, or the President of Microsoft, you know? Good for them. But I still don't like their film.

What? Just because I'm Filipino, I'm supposed to like and worship their film?

Moreover, if the Filipino-Americans think I'm bashing them and that they feel sorry for me because they have acquired my money after paying to watch their film....well if they think they've reached success and that they're a bit wealthier now, why can't they donate the money from the box office to HELP those needy people in the slums?

What they're doing here is the fact that they are capitalizing on the poorest people, using them to help them earn their brink of fifteen minutes success and profit.

Bottom line, what's your solution, buddies for the problem?

Posted by: artsy hipster on July 30, 2006 10:51 PM

artsy hipster:

do you even get the point of the film? every negative comment you raised doesn't relate to the film's purpose at all.

i, myself, left the cinema thinking that a huge aspect of the film making was just absurd (the stalking terrorist watching his every move, ON THAT ENVIRONMENT, is just not possible) so i am not defending the integrity of this movie but it just seems that you're all disappointed for the wrong reasons.

"It poorly represents the nice parts of the Philippines." - the film is about THAT. the injustice, violence, poverty, all that negativity in all it's glory. what did you expect?

the shaky camera - i'm no film maker but it's part of their creative license. it's not only the lack of equipment, it brings out the mood.

and about the rich spoiled excessive kids, what does it have to do with the message of a film that's about the unsatisfied muslims fighting for justice, and all the bloodshed it has to offer? if you're so concerned about that, why not make your own damn film about it

Posted by: vicky on August 12, 2006 11:54 PM
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