Reviewed by: Chris

I suspect that many people who have passed briefly through Manila have had a similar thought to myself: how to get out again as quickly as possible. Manila is almost unique among major Asian capitals in that the sense of being a horribly oppressed, overcrowded, underfunded, third-world rat-hole of a city bears down pretty mercilessly. Take the hard rural life of battling elements and poverty, and transfer it with concrete legs to the city of a population crushed together. Don’t even think about good days and bad days. To say ‘life sucks’ would make light of it. A general rule of day-to-day life is that it won’t be pleasant: it might be worse. Get used to it. With many poor countries, there is some redeeming feature. The cultural traditions. The beautiful colours. The music, the dancing. In the Philippines, forget it. Nice parts are for rich people, well fenced off.

The only abiding beauty is the bond between people who share the same fate and aim. Perhaps not to be anything as high and mighty as ‘good’ – but at least different to the scum of the canal and all who merge into it.

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The theme of our film is two grandmothers (‘Lola’ means ‘grandmother’ in Filipino). Using the singular asserts their commonality – something that is so precious, so necessary, and for which each has to strive.

The film opens amid harsh wind and rain. The driving rain that makes short shrift of umbrellas. An elderly woman battles against this weather through a dirty concrete square. Graffiti peers down. It is not a nice area, nor a particularly safe one. She is aided by a very young boy, related to her, who helps her walk. The scene (and most of the film) is shot in verité style. There is no sense of watching actors or stage sets. Merely a camera ‘happening’ to catch the scene as it unfolds. Harsh visual effects are underlined by harsh sounds. Clipped, slightly screeching voices of lower-class urban Filipinos, traffic, and the general noise of life.

The grandmother is Lola Sepa. She has lost her grandson. He was stabbed the other night. She finally says to the boy, “Here will do.” With difficulty, they light a candle.

There is something intensely spiritual about the moment. Remember that poem by Kipling that starts, “If you can keep your head when all about you..?” There is a Taoist quotation that fits equally well: “The shock terrifies for a hundred miles, and he does not let fall the sacrificial spoon and chalice.” This old woman, who struggles just to walk, has risked coming to the scene of the murder in horrible monsoon conditions, just to light a remembrance candle (that is doubtless going to be blown out a few moments later anyway) for her dead grandson.

The other life story we follow is that of the murderer’s grandmother, Lola Carpin. We follow them for nearly two hours until their lives converge and find a resolution that is the most unsaccharine you could imagine. The squalor and corruption of daily life are not glamorised or dramatised. They just are. Lola is a harrowing, claustrophobic, stressful film that makes you long for a quiet night and a hot bath. The horror is not so much graphic as a relentless wearing down. It will stay with you. As will Lola Sepa. (She will always be for me now a real character I have seen, not a fiction.)

There are a few lighter notes. You can soak up much about the Philippines. The trademark jeepney buses – originally leftover US jeeps – in which passengers pass their fare one to another until it reaches the driver. The delight that accompanies (for reasons hard for Westerners to understand) duck eggs or fish. Sewing money inside your clothes for safety. A corrupt and underfunded infrastructure that you don’t complain about – you just get on and make the best of the life you have. And a place where a good heart still counts for something. Especially if it is backed up with 50,000 pesos.

Reviewed on: 23 Jun 2010
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Two Philippine grandmothers struggle with the aftermath of a murder.
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Director: Brillante Mendoza

Writer: David Andriole, Linda Casimiro

Starring: Anita Linda, Rustica Carpio, Tanya Gomez, Jhong Hilario, Ketchup Eusebio, Benjie Filomeno, Bobby Jerome Go, Christian Slater, Camille Solari, Geraldine Tan

Year: 2009

Runtime: 110 minutes

Country: France, Philippines


Tribeca 2010
EIFF 2010

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