Graceland Review: A Dark and Emotionally Gripping Tale That Delivers
When I first heard of this film, the title made me initially think of Elvis Presley's lavish Tennessee estate, then a bright and sunny place comparable to Rivendell. A place of peace and prosperity full of lush greenery and devoid of people suffering from the harsh realities of the world. The land depicted in Ron Morales' sophomore feature however, couldn't be further from either of the aforementioned places.
Morales' version of Graceland
is a place inhabited by those who've fallen from grace, which is the great irony of the piece. It is a place where those sworn to uphold the law and protect the people are corrupt. It is a place where those less fortunate resort to less than admirable deeds to make ends meet and survive. It is a place where innocence is stripped from children on a daily basis without a second thought. It is dreadful, disturbing, tragic and sadly, a way of life. On it goes.
Set in the Philippines, devoted family man Marlon Villar, played with rich authenticity by Arnold Reyes, is a lowly chauffeur for the detestable Congressman Manuel Chango (Menggie Cobarrubias) and his family. Marlon is an everyman, who is just trying to keep his head above water and support his family. His ailing wife, played by Angeli Bayani, is in desperate need of an organ if she is to live, while his boss is engaged in shady dealings, to put it mildly. Marlon can only do as he is told if he is to have the money to keep up with his wife's hospital bills.
The daughters of Marlon and Congressman Chango, Sofia and Elvie, played by Patricia Gayod and Ella Guevara respectively, are good friends despite their obvious class differences. When a kidnapping situation goes from bad to worse, Marlon is thrust into the worst possible position he can imagine and must now do whatever he can to ensure his daughter's safety.
Running at 84 minutes, there isn't much time allowed to take in and process everything that occurs, which is a plus here. Morales' film is like a lean, mean boxer ready to step into the ring and deliver efficient blows to its audience. This boxer knows just what buttons to push -- or not push and the film does just that on a visceral level without being heavy-handed. The subject matter, which depicts elements of child prostitution, is heavy enough. Add to that organ trafficking, corrupt police and politicians, a treacherous politician's wife, and a father who is willing to succumb to questionable choices to protect his family and you're dealing with a tale that weighs on you. Especially when you consider that what Morales is depicting is not too far off from real-life in the Philippines.
Speaking of real-life, one of the charms of this film is the gritty, raw and rather elemental nature of it. Not only does the particular places within Metro Manila, with its overcast skies, dark colors and griminess help sell this fact, but the wonderful cinematography by Sung Rae Cho, also does its share of adding to the realism. It is almost documentary style and there is a real honesty in how everything is captured. The slightly shaky elements of the handheld camera and the lack of lots of camera dolly movements, really add to the tone.
At the end of the day, this wonderfully acted, self-contained poem of a film, is not for those looking for an escapist experience. 2008's Taken
would probably be a better fit. It would also be a better fit if one is looking for the conventional happy ending with no-strings attached. This film is a commentary on innocence, corruption, and the depths one would sink to in order to protect that innocence or to avenge its loss. I suppose a downside to the film could be that the brisk running time doesn't leave much space for rich character development, but then I question whether this film needs it. There's enough in the narrative to keep us emotionally invested without excessive backstory for everyone.
With a word of caution on the disturbing elements of child prostitution, Graceland
is a tightly written, technically well-made treat of an indie-flick I would definitely recommend. Morales' second film is a triumph and he should be commended for boldly shining a light into some dark places and creating a film that makes no apologies for giving a voice to the voiceless.