Not reliant on jump scares or bombarding you with frightening images, the Irish and Filipino co-produced psychological horror film Nocebo settles comfortably as a mood piece and a supernatural mystery. It’s an intimate movie revolving around four characters, really, but it is unafraid to play around with the audience’s expectations. Interestingly enough, the presence of Chai Fonacier – not as a support but as a lead character as written – threatens to upend the narrative in interesting ways.
As a horror film, the tension comes from what the audiences assume. There’s danger, for sure, but from what? ‘Nocebo’ follows, at first, Christine (played by Eva Green). She’s a children’s fashion designer, who receives a call one day with some disturbing news (that is left hidden from the audience), and then she is visited by a mangy dog filled with scabs and large ticks. The dog shakes vigorously in front of her and, bombarded by the ticks, Christine begins to deteriorate physically, mentally, and emotionally.
Eight months later and she’s a broken woman. Her marriage with her husband Felix (played by Mark Strong) is strained by her new condition and her relationship with her daughter Bobs (Billie Gadson) is hanging by a thread. She has fits, cramps, shakes, and delusional episodes and she is suffering from memory loss. She has even forgotten that she has called Diana (Chai Fonacier) to come to their house as a helper, and worse, she forgot to tell her family.
Felix and Bobs are not pleased but Diana quickly proves her worth, cooking a delicious Filipino meal and proving to be helpful in calming Christine during one of her episodes, and completely unfazed by Felix and Bobs’ low-key attempts to make her feel unwelcomed. Christine, on the other hand, is entranced by her and is willing to try Diana’s folk remedies to cure her from her illness.
Maybe intended for a Western, global audience that is more attuned to seeing a white protagonist and an exotic, Asian character as an other, ‘Nocebo’ sets the stage for a little mystery game. For those unaware of the Filipino culture of shamans, witch doctors (mangkukulams and albularyo) they would immediately connect Diana with the strange occurrences of Chrstine’s affliction. The film leans into Diana’s otherness and presents all her actions as suspicious.
But as a Filipino, who grew up with these folklores and tales (like there’s no way that dog at the opening with the ticks isn’t some reference or allusion to the Visayan sigbin), there was a part of me that saw Diana, who even admits that she had taken the power of an elemental, that maybe the film is leading the audience on a red herring. After all, Christine is getting better and their growing bond has become a point of increased tension between Felix and his wife. My mind began to race: is the man at fault here?
At a compact 96-minutes, the film focuses on Christine and Diana and how their attempts to cure Christine from her ailments lead us to a shocking discovery that turns the whole film on its head, narratively – after all, as the story unfolds, we begin to see more and more of Diana’s backstory back home in the Philippines – and by three-fourths of the film, it becomes clear that Diana’s role in the film is more than just that of support. It is her motivations and intentions that carry the film through. Fonacier stands on equal footing with Green in carrying this movie. While Eva Green is no stranger to these desperate and broken characters, it is Fonacier who surprises at every turn. There’s a maturity in her approach to Diana and every creative choice she makes becomes clear as the film’s mystery is cleared up at the end.
If you are keen and quick, it is not hard to guess the mystery behind this story and the way it unfolds at the end, while over dramatic, is done in such a static way – it is an inevitable resolution so the moment it reaches its climax, the urgency of the film is lost. The moment the final act plays out, there’s no way that the film can end in any other way and that sort of takes away from the overall enjoyment of the film.
It’s great, though, to see Filipino culture and folklore play so prominently in a Western setting and done so with so much respect and authenticity. It is done on equal terms with that of the English and that made the film that much more rewarding. In a year where Filipinos are being featured prominently in films from all over the world – from ‘Triangle of Sadness’ to ‘Plan 75’ to ‘To the North’ – it feels really good to be seen on equal footing in the landscape of international cinema.
Nocebo opens in cinemas nationwide on January 18.