Nilalang opens with lengthy text describing an artifact called The Book of Ishi, which apparently holds within its pages demonic creatures. This text turns out to be unnecessary, as the very first scene of the movie better explains the concept with a scene taking place in Japan in 1602, where a samurai is forced to duel with his brother, who has been possessed by a demon named Zahagur. In present day, NBI Special Agent Tony Cuevas (Cesar Montano) is investigating a series of brutal murders of women. Tony soon discovers that the killings have something to do with the aforementioned book, and he must delve deep into the Japanese underground to find a way to stop the murders.
There really isn't much to this movie. The best thing one can really say about it is that it looks really good. This much is indisputable. But these visuals don't give the film substance. This is a nonsense story that feels cobbled together from a mess of visual ideas and genre tropes. There just isn't much in the way of structure or theme or character development. As its worst, the film is barely strung together macho clichés, with nary a trace of feeling in any of the proceedings.
The problems start with the main character. Tony Cuevas is a hero cop without any real flaws. Women are all attracted to him, and his colleagues all look up to him. He is presented as tortured and closed off, but this never really becomes a problem for the character. He is as uninteresting as a main character gets. There is nowhere for this character to go. Tony could have actually been written out of this story, the narrative working better if it just told the story of the people who are actually tied to the spiritual threat. He only really seems to exist as an audience surrogate, the character mainly there to receive exposition.
And there is a lot of exposition. There has to be, because the story doesn’t actually make a whole lot of sense. They’re fighting a spectral opponent with the ability to possess anyone. Its goals are stated very clearly at some point in the film, but it doesn’t seem to be in too much of a hurry to get things done. And when everything is explained, it doesn’t make sense that some of the characters didn’t already know all this stuff. The people who have the most to lose from this threat seemed to be equally content not preparing to deal with it.
But yes, it looks amazing. The film clearly prioritizes visuals, and it really shows. Director Pedring Lopez is a consummate visual craftsman, putting together incredible images that defy the idea of what’s possible in our cinema. But these visuals accompany a story that just isn’t put together well. And the acting just isn’t very good. To be completely fair to Cesar Montano, this is a pretty terrible role. Given that, he still comes off as pretty ridiculous, especially in the major dramatic moments of the film. Maria Ozawa was presented as a big selling point for this film. But she just isn’t very good in this.
There’s clearly a lot of talent behind Nilalang, but it just doesn’t come together. The story just doesn’t make any sense. It doesn’t really try to make any sense. It just keeps trying to string together a bunch of theoretically “cool” scenes, hoping that the technical prowess can compensate for the deficiencies in the story. But that approach rarely works. The film is so haphazardly structured that it just becomes at certain points. It ends up creating these ridiculous situations that undercut whatever coolness the film is actually able to muster.