Sanglaan sometimes feels like it is caught between two worlds. In its heart, I feel, it’s a film that wants to be still, to swim in the murky silence of everyday life, filling the theater with an uncomfortable but compelling picture of a very real, often boring life. And strangely, that would’ve been more exciting than what we ended up getting in the end: a movie unsure of the strength of its own truths, falling quickly to the temptation of forced melodrama. There’s more than an inkling of something to Sanglaan, but they just didn’t trust it.
Olivia (Tessie Tomas) runs a pawnshop that was left to her by her late husband. Her children have offered to petition for her immigration to the States, but she’s dead set on keeping the place open, even though business has been terrible. She runs the place with her niece Amy (Ina Feleo), a shy young girl who doesn’t really seem cut out for the business, timidly hiding behind her pocketbooks. The security guard of the shop has taken in a boarder, a directionless young man just waiting for his ship to come in. Together, these characters deal with the perils of running a pawnshop, while working out the issues of their personal lives.
The plot is pretty loosely structured, fading between almost isolated snapshots of life at the pawnshop and little bits of character development. Taken as separate parts, each little bit works well enough. But when you put them together, it doesn’t really paint a very cohesive picture. There are times when the movie revels in the most mundane of moments, finding poignancy in the profound absences of real life. But then the movie also takes a couple of wide left turns, drawing situations of the fantasy Manila of cinema, the one populated with swindlers connected to every scam in the city, creating contrived, dramatized conflict when the truth and its silences ought to have been enough.
The film is shot pretty well, the camera staying very composed as it shows us these lives in an aquarium of cinema, the stillness effectively unnerving when we are made to focus on the minutiae of their existence. Again, this mostly works in the smallness of the film. It doesn’t quite jibe with some of the film’s more hysterical moments, when we leave the stillness of these characters lives in favor of sturm and drang of the sensationalist amorality of this tired city. The performances ride the same line between understatement and hysterics, with only Ina Feleo and Neil Ryan Sese able to stay within a more reasonable and realistic range of emotions. Tessie Tomas is still pretty great, but there are scenes with her that could’ve stood for a little more restraint. The same could be said for Flor Salanga. Joem Bascon shows flair, but I don’t know if it’s flair that this movie actually needed.
I had written in an earlier, shorter review of Sanglaan that it was the prototypical Cinemalaya film, a generally affable story set in a unique setting, telling the story of a disparate set of characters who each go through their own little story arcs, revealing supposedly shocking realities about the lives of people in the city, shot in static, well-composed frames. That in itself probably isn’t such a bad thing, but Sanglaan is long on form and short on substance, letting the template trample over whatever sincerity is already present in the film. Had the film stuck to its low-key, understated guns, it might’ve had the time to reveal something truly profound. It goes to show that it isn’t only the mainstream that can fall prey to the perils of formula.