Back at the start of this year, I placed Richard Somes’ Yanggaw in my list of top ten movies of 2008. Seven months later, Yanggaw is having a limited run at Robinson’s Galleria, and my opinion of it has not changed. Yanggaw is easily one of my favorite local films of all time, blending the joys of the aswang genre with the structure of a family drama to create a thoroughly Filipino film. Though the lack of budget does show at times, a strong script elevated by amazing performances make this film more than worth your while.
Junior (Ronnie Lazaro) is a patriarch of a family living in a small farming community in some far-flung province. One day his daughter comes home with a mysterious sickness. She spends all day weak and bedridden, but is found every morning with dirt caked feet and bloodied hands. Junior consults with the local healer and learns that his daughter has been infected by a malevolent spirit, and that she is slowly turning into an aswang. With the local authorities getting closer to the truth, Junior seeks to save his daughter from this curse, or failing that, to protect her at all costs.
There is a scene early in Yanggaw that sums up its appeal for me. In it, Junior and Dulpo (played by Joel Torre) play volleyball against each other. It is a pretty strange thing in a horror movie, I know, but that one scene is a perfect storm of storytelling prowess, direction and acting talent, and is a good prelude to all the quality that’s to follow in the film. It’s such a compact, entertaining scene, and by the end of it, you’ve learned everything you really need to know about Junior and his relationship to Dulpo. Beyond that one scene lies a story that balances aswang horror with rich familial themes. This the rare horror film that realizes that horror works much better when there’s a personal dimension to it, when there are emotions to hold on to and characters to care about. These characters are fantastically well written, particularly Junior, whose choices are all deeply flawed, yet painfully understandable.
Yanggaw also serves as proof that horror as a whole has not benefitted from computer imagery. Director Richard Somes, on a much smaller budget than your average local horror film, concentrates on building atmosphere and manages to create a much more haunting film all in all. Every scene is tinged with a growing dread, building to a powerful emotional crescendo that’s more affecting than your usual jumping-out-of-the-shadows senselessness that populates other horror films. The limitations in production do still hurt at times. There’s a somewhat clunky death scene near the end of the film that just never manages to be convincing, though they do get the point across.
This is all held together by a ridiculously talented cast, led by two of the greatest actors our country has ever known, Ronnie Lazaro and Joel Torre. You don’t need me to tell you how good Ronnie Lazaro is, but it’s been too long since we’ve had him front and center like this. Lazaro makes the inner struggle of his character easy to see, his face becoming a pure canvas of conflict. Joel Torre plays foil to Lazaro’s Junior, and any scene that they’re in together is just cinematic gold. Watch out as well for great supporting turns from Tetchie Agbayani and Erik Matti.
Yanggaw is exactly the kind of local movie I wish we were still making. Our horror films nowadays owe more to The Ring than to anything from our rich history of cinema, and the disparity in cultural norms has created empty films that tend to coast on style. Yanggaw is what our horror ought to be, launching itself from our cinematic heritage and taking things further, producing a film that has as much heart as it has scares. I would recommend this film to anybody.