The most affecting part of Timmy Harns’ ‘Dog Days’ is its opening scene and its closing scene. Both are draped in a mystical rite that evokes a sense of wonder and a disruption of the natural order. Both scenes are powerfully symbolic and utilizes all the elements of cinema to its highest degrees. They are disturbing scenes, for sure, but powerful images that properly opens and closes this story.
What makes ‘Dog Days’ a demanding experience is everything that happens in-between. The film is defined as a “dark coming-of-age” story but it is also a fable with sinister origins that turns into an absurdist drug-infused romp into the life of Michael Jordan Ulili, a half-Filipino and half-black orphan, whose mother sacrificed her own life for him to have supernatural abilities to become a great basketball player, if not the greatest.
On the get-go, the film plays off of its campy and whimsical tone. The visual treatment is arresting: wonderful black and white cinematography by Albert Banzon and Jippy Pascua, who oftentimes use framing techniques that evoke Lav Diaz, but with better intention. The film often uses tight, extreme close-up of character’s faces revealing the full intensity of what looks like the absence of make-up and the raw energy of the actor’s performances. Oftentimes, there are scenes where the camera doesn’t move and the actors move into frame and dramatize a conversation without any cuts, thus charging the scene with its unrefined power.
I use the words “unrefined power” deliberately because a lot of the scenes and performances seem like they are firing away straight from the hip. Lead actors Ybes Bagadiong and Barabara Ruaro explode onscreen with barely any filter. It almost feels like an exercise on unfiltered and unprocessed enactment that when framed by Harn’s direction, lends well to the sometimes campy, comedic, and absurdist tones that the film leans into.
Because coming into ‘Dog Days’ without any sense of humor will sour your experience of the film. There is an element of the art house film to its presentation but it’s also peppered generously with drug sensibilities that the narrative shifts towards when things go awry in Michael Jordan Ulili’s plans, and he has to escape his town with his pregnant girlfriend, Maureen, and they end up becoming junkies to survive.
The narrative is disjointed and can jump into surprising plot details that are completely unexpected because they aren’t set up properly in the structure. There are bouts of violence that come out of nowhere, and somewhere in the middle of this film is a basketball movie complete with rivals and pissing contests. There is also a long-winded sequence of a completely symbolic search for one’s truth and meaning in a mystical forest and facing your demons in the most drug-fueled way.
In all honesty, I really did not like this film when I first saw it, except for its incredible opening and ending sequence. But after sleeping on it, my attitudes towards the film changed as my memory of the film – along with its crazy narrative structure and story-sense, gory depictions of inhumane acts, and over indulgent dialogue – and I recognize that the film is one part dark fable as much as it is a social commentary on some of the more horrible aspects of Filipino culture: racism, obsession and addiction, crab mentality, idolatry, superstition, and benefiting from the success of others.
For sure, ‘Dog Days’ is not an easy film to watch. It’s disturbing, absurdist, and raw. But there’s a lot of very good imagery here, and there’s a confidence in Timmy Harn’s style that is aesthetic and arresting. There are many over-indulgent scenes, especially in the dialogue, and the film could have benefitted from editing out into a roughly 90-minute version to retain all of its energy, rather than its current stretched-out 124 minute version that sometimes drags and dawdles.
Regardless, for a film that’s very much outside of my comfort zones, it manages to linger the following day and in that regard, I feel that ‘Dog Days’ intention to disrupt and disturb has achieved its intended reaction.
QCinema is the official film festival of Quezon City, and runs until October 30, 2018 in selected theaters. For more information, visit qcinema.ph.