The defining quality of Joel Lamangan films in the last decade or so is that they get made. The director fashioned himself as a journeyman capable of finishing any film regardless of the budgetary or scheduling constraints that typically come with making studio films nowadays. And so, his films tend to just offer the marginal amount of effort required to bring a script to screen. It would mostly be static frames and first takes and nothing resembling a commitment of any of the material.
Not so with Lihis, which finds the director applying a level of craftsmanship we haven't seen from him in quite a while. The result is rather remarkable: an earnest, if overly obvious history of extrajudicial killings, filtered through the story of a forbidden love between two members of the NPA.
The film splits itself between two timelines. In 2006, Ada (Isabelle Daza) is basing her thesis on a massacre that occurred twenty years prior in a village called Acacia. Her mother Cecilia was part of a fact-finding mission into a massacre, and Ada's inquiries bring up her history as a member of the NPA. The other timeline traces the relationship of Ka Felix and Ka Jimmy (Joem Bascon and Jake Cuenca), two rebels who fall in love, despite the movement's laws against such a pairing.
The film certainly lacks subtlety, both in its romance and its politics. Lamangan doesn’t actually bother with sexual tension between the characters, and basically just rams them into each other at certain moments. In the same way, the politics of the film arrive with a loud crash, the character basically saying all their points out loud. But what the film lacks in nuance, it makes up for in sheer velocity. This is a film that just keeps moving forward at an engrossing pace. The years just fly by in the film, the emotions always flying so high that we’re just carried through the story.
And it’s kind of clever, too. It’s really interesting how the characters keep talking about how the love is forbidden, but face no real consequences from the institution. Whatever real objections are raised to the pairing are kept on a personal level, the restrictions on freedom mostly enforced by the self. The film makes this clear delineation between the personal and the political, juxtaposing triumphs of personal identity against the greater tragedies being perpetrated by an unjust system.
Lamangan is clearly inspired by this story, and actually applies a lot of effort behind bringing it to screen. It looks much better than his usual productions, with real thought into how scenes are lit and how the camera might move. There are still a couple of details that throw the film off, but for the most part, this is a really solid piece of production. Lamangan’s direction lays everything on pretty thick, but that only seems to highlight just how passionate the director is about this project. The acting is all right, as well. The actors keep it smaller and more natural than one might expect. There is still some of the requisite screaming and crying, but there appears to be a conscious effort to tone that stuff done.
Lihis finds Lamangan breaking out of the habits that working in the mainstream has instilled in him. Long ago, I visited the director on set of one of his movies, and it’s difficult to connect what I saw there with what is in Lihis. Because this is clearly a director that cares. The film might still be a little too loud, a little too conscious of hitting those standard dramatic beats with cinematic flourish. But it is the passion and the commitment that remains when all is said and done.