Movie Review for Engkwentro

An Exercise

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Engkwentro has something important to say. It’s so important that it says it right up front, in white text presenting the audience with the problem at hand: people are being killed by government-sponsored death squads. The film is bookended with its advocacy, giving people statistics to substantiate the depth of the problem. This is mostly the extent with which the film really tackles the issue of the City Death Squads, the rest of the film more of an aesthetic exercise than a dramatic statement. There’s some truly admirable skill on hand in this picture, though one can’t help but feel that the entire thing feels a bit disingenuous.

The movie follows Richard (Felix Roco), a young gang leader who’s been targeted by the City Death Squad. He plans to run away with his girlfriend to Manila, but doesn’t have enough money to do it. Over the course of the day, he wheels and deals down the slums, trying to get enough money to get on the boat. But along the way, he learns that his little brother Raymond has joined a rival gang, and gains the ire of the rival gang’s leader, leading to a violent late night encounter that will test loyalties and pit brother against brother.

Engkwentro is ostensibly about the Davao Death Squads, but the movie barely glances off that topic. A couple of mentions of the City Death Squad are the only things that separate the film’s story from the throng of local independent films that attempt to portray the realities of slum life. Where the movie gains some ground is its unique aesthetic, the entire film seemingly shot in a couple of takes, with a handheld camera serving as our guide through the labyrinthine slums and the tangled lives of its inhabitants. It’s ambitious stuff, but the style quickly overrides everything else in the film. The aesthetic becomes the focus, making the plight of the characters almost secondary to the way their lives are shot. Clarity becomes an issue, both in a practical sense and in a substantive sense. Practical, in that it becomes increasingly difficult to follow the action as the movie plunges into the darkness, and substantive in that whatever commentary the film possesses is ultimately obscured by its aesthetic focus.

Not to downplay what has been achieved here, because it takes a lot of talent to pull off what is accomplished with the film’s visual style. But when the aesthetics of the film start getting in the way of clarity, then maybe the talent could be better spent on other aspects of production. For all the politics on display at the bookends of this film, there’s precious little meat on the bones of this production, most of it feeling more like a technical exercise. Clever shooting, great sound, more than decent acting, and a fantastic set all add up to something technically admirable, but ultimately facile.

Ultimately, the problem I have with Engkwentro is that it doesn’t really do justice to the specific nuances of its subject. All the technical wizardry at play ends up consuming the identity of the picture, leaving audiences with something to admire, but little to think about afterwards. And while one must still admire the brashness of the technique, the rigor with which the movie is shot, it still feels like a whole lot of nothing. In this endless battle between style and substance, we really need to start erring on the side of the latter.

My Rating:



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