REVIEW OF THE FILM
The film is about human trafficking. Young girls and boys are sold to foreigners to work as sex slaves. The ugly scheme of things include recruiters on the ground, and here, it is Biring (Nora Aunor) and Vivian (Rosanna Roces) and the masters they serve: high profile personalities including an art patron, a city mayor and his local police, a customs official, and a senator.
Biring is the bag lady of the syndicate, and she meets up with clients for their requirements. She is tough on the outside, yes, foul-mouthed (oh your ears would be full with those), but soft on the inside. This is what the syndicate wanted to change in her. Vivian is a childhood friend from Bicol, and she took Biring and her family to Manila, sent her daughter (Sunshine Dizon) and grandson (Jeric Gonzales) to school, and made Biring her girl Friday. But greediness took the better of the friendship and Vivian sets up Biring for the crime of passion she did (shooting her unfaithful lover played by Gardo Versoza). Biring gets jailed and it is in this world that the syndicate would turn her into a sophisticated crook and eventually replace Vivian. A young and scheming lawyer, Gerald (played by Rocco Nacino) does this task, first teaching her the lesson of how to get ahead in life using the predatory tactic of a frog catching a mosquito, and then getting her beaten by inmates to make her tough on the inside. (Now how such transformation could happen in such a short time is another story).
When the right time came, the syndicate bails her out and offers her the role she was prepared for. After some concessions, she agrees to take on the job, but it was only her ploy. Biring gets ready to leave for Bicol with her daughter and grandson and quickly meets up with a local investigative journalist (played by Romnick Sarmenta) to give him a notebook that contains syndicate information. Her decision to escape the syndicate also came with a resolve to expose the crime. But the syndicate knew about her plans and quickly sets up her grandson for illegal possession of drugs. She had to abort her plan for her family’s safety. She becomes co-opted in their crime, and what follows is her ascent into the echelons of greed and power in the syndicate. Vivian is shot in broad daylight, and as she lay dying, Biring looks on her with vengeful eyes. She also killed the reporter after a bout to recover her notebook and stop the expose. And although she has kept her personal faith in God (as shown in her devotion to the Black Nazarene and in her friendship with a priest), such did not move her to abandon her criminal acts. The final scenes show her on top of the pecking order, with what used to be her masters but are now on her beck and call. A whisper by Gerald makes her laugh like a demon. She has become the queen of hell.
The film was successful in portraying everything that’s ugly about Manila, literally and figuratively. The human trafficking syndicate and the corruption of institutions were set against a backdrop of stench and smudge of human suffering. It was a perfect setting for a ‘dark’ film. The cinematography was crisp and the quality was such it could easily pass for a mainstream production. Editing was cohesive and the pacing was compelling, surprisingly a big improvement from previous works by Joel Lamangan where flashbacks and flash-forwards compromise story build-up. A few support cast gave strong performances, including Sunshine Dizon, Rosanna Roces, and Miles Kanapi (who played the character of a jail inmate, and she was so good I told her after the screening that her performance reminded me of Maya Valdes’s Barbie in ‘Bulaklak ng City Jail’). Forget about the male support cast. Even Nacino’s acting looked contrived.
As expected, Nora Aunor gave another tour de force performance as a bida/kontrabida. And to use the words of direk Joey Reyes after seeing the film, it is useless to say more. Two words say it all – NORA AUNOR. But while her performance here deserves the Festival’s best actress prize, her character has no redemptive value, as the entire story also did not have. She moved from a dark to a darker character, showing remorse at times for her sins, but still proceeding to sin more, as if the grace of her own personal prayers did not have any effect on her. And while she doted for her own daughter, she didn’t see her daughter’s face in the women she sold to slavery. Despicable.
And so there you have it. A film titled ‘Hustisya’ but did not see justice served. Or perhaps it is the viewer who would be crying for justice for the lack of a takeaway value after seeing it.
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars