Sapi finds director Brillante Mendoza applying his naturalist aesthetics and predilection for social commentary to the horror genre. The film is often torn between two impulses: exploring the murky ethics of television production and showing people stuff that might actually scare them. It’s an awkward fit most of the time, and though the film has the ability to put together a disturbing visual, it’s unable to build any sort of lasting effect. The horror comes off as an afterthought, all of it playing second fiddle to an overly obvious message.
The movie concerns fledgling TV reporter Dennis (Dennis Trillo) and his producer Meryll (Meryll Soriano). The pair is working on a story about demonic possession, and they set about looking into reported cases of the phenomenon, hoping to get some footage of an actual possession. Unfortunately, the rival network scoops them on the most promising of the cases, leaving the pair with nothing to show for all their work. But Meryll happens to know the cameraman who worked on the story for the rival network. She makes a backdoor deal with the cameraman and gets the story on air. Unfortunately for everyone involved, some of that footage was never meant to get on air.
The film splits itself between two concerns. The first involves the main characters having strange things happen to them as a result of doing something wrong. The second is an exploration of what happens behind the scenes of a typical television news production. Despite the overall horror leanings of the movie, it is the latter that takes precedence. Or at least, it is the side of the story that reaches more satisfying heights. While none of it is particularly novel, it does hit on some uncomfortable truths about television journalism.
The side of the film that offers more typical genre rhythms feels a little undercooked. The film basically separates the horror out of the story. It crafts isolated paranormal events that don’t seem to have any consequence beyond the scene. The characters will encounter something horrifying, and then the movie will just cut away. The characters will be in another location entirely, apparently having suffered no ill effects from having witnessed something utterly horrifying. They don’t grow wary of what’s happening to them, and make no mention about any of it to anybody.
As a result, the horror never really progresses. The characters remain pretty static throughout the picture, registering little distress as extraordinary phenomena invade their lives. This seems to be a pitfall of not really having a script. Naturalism is a great tool, but it clashes directly with the film’s genre ambitions. Horror needs a specific rhythm to have any sort of lasting effect. While the film provides a good amount of odd, haunting visuals, the storytelling doesn’t allow any of it to linger. Performances are okay, but the characters don’t have a lot of facets to explore.
The thing about Sapi is that it has pretty good components. But the way the components are mashed up isn’t very appealing. Mendoza probably has a great film in him that’s just about exploring how fake the news can be. With even more time devoted to the subject, Mendoza could probably find even more galling cases from within that world. And the gratuitously horrific visuals would certainly find their place in a film more focused on the horror. But together, the effect is kind of inert. Sapi exhibits a lot of talent, but not all of it is put to the best use.