Underground

***1/2

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Underground
"Palacio also understands the resonance of small objects for those who have nothing and uses this to heighten the impact of their situation on us."

Daniel Palacio's movie may begin like a grim docu-dramatic slice of life for the Filipino underclasses - a perennial favourite theme of film festivals - but despite retaining its strong social commentary and realism, it soon incorporates gripping heist elements.

Described in the first moments as being "based on true events", Palacio did draw on the experiences of one specific family, but there's a depressing sense that what is about to happen could occur to nearly any of the people eking out an existence in one of the country's cemeteries. While the dead have, at least, a water tight resting place - stacked concrete coffin boxes or grander, gated mausoleums - the living set up their homes among them. Needless to say, life is rock-bottom basic - after all, the dead don't need running water or amenities.

Copy picture

The residents also face constant threat of eviction from Action Line, a euphemistically titled enforcement squad who periodically arrive to beat them out of their homes, which proves an effective money-spinner for the guards who then accept bribes to let the families back in.

It is the landscape of extreme poverty, where the presence of the dead is hardly needed to remind the inhabitants of their own mortality. This is particularly true for Bangis (Joem Bascon), a part-time grave-digger who lives at his workplace along with his wife Barbie (Mara Lopez) and their young, and sick, daughter Ningning (Grace Ann Betalmos), their lives punctuated by racing to the nearest hospital with Barbie clutching the family's near-empty piggy bank like a talisman. Life, for them, is essentially spent attempting to avoid death.

The need for medicine drives Bangis and the film. Palacio has been mentored - and now executive produced - by Brillante Mendoza and his influence is here but the young director has his own voice, seamlessly weaving in a mid-story grave-robbing heist without losing any of the film's emotional steam. The details of why someone might want the dead body are never revealed but that is in keeping with the spirit of the film, which remains title focused on Bangis and his family's personal plight. What makes his film stand out is that the family are not just here to be pitied, they are a unit with agency - albeit against the odds - who we quickly start to root for.

The tension of the heist dovetails with the emotional anxiety that has already been generated, underlined by impressive angular scoring from Maria Teresa Barrozo. Palacio also understands the resonance of small objects for those who have nothing and uses this to heighten the impact of their situation on us - the sight of a cheap child's trinket in the film's final third proving as heart-wrenching as anything else at San Sebastian Film Festival this year.

Reviewed on: 12 Oct 2017
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A gravedigger is forced to take desperate measures after his daughter becomes gravely ill.

Director: Daniel Palacio

Writer: Daniel Palacio

Starring: Joem Bascon, Mara Lopez, Grace Ann Betalmos

Year: 2017

Runtime: 87 minutes

Country: Philippines

Festivals:

SSFF 2017

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