Directed by Dan Villegas. Screenplay by Yvette Tan. Cast: Iza Calzado, Ian Veneracion, Xyriel Manabat, Harvey Bautista, Therese Malvar.
The best kind of horror deals with confined spaces. What deeply unsettles is the notion of terror and danger reaching out to you from where you are standing or sitting right now, from beyond and within yourself, as the walls close in. There’s the claustrophobia side of it. Tight spaces do mean to suffocate. They squeeze out all the air, and immobilize and constrain.
There is also the isolation.
Isolation brings anxiety and alienation. There’s something wrong, yet it only seems to affect you. It’s not a problem for anyone else. Only you can sense it, but you can’t quite transmit this to anyone else. This can take a lot of forms, just like there are a bunch of types of spaces to be trapped in.
There’s also the inevitability about isolation in a densely peopled world, in that we’re never truly alone. And that is often the most frightening thing of all.
Given the simplicity and elegance of that proposition, it’s no wonder why a lot of horror films have relied on a haunted house setup, or variants. It’s more efficient from a logistical standpoint: lesser sets, lesser budgets, so more focus on the sets, the cinematography, the scripting, and the performances.
It also makes it easier to map out cinematic metaphors. There is a place, this house, it can stand for a lot of things. And you’re in it.
In Ilawod, the house stands for male inadequacy in this day and age of heightened gender politics. But is it just the male who feels inadequate?
There’s been talk about how Ilawod takes on male arrogance and chauvinism in how it emasculates its Filipino lead, played by a former action star, no less. To some extent, it does. What they don’t realize is it’s a debate.
A male journalist (Ian Veneracion) struggles to make ends meet for both his wife (Iza Calzado) and kids (Xyrel Manabat and Harvey Bautista). He goes to these far-off places, covering all these strange phenomena just so he can keep on plugging tabloid stuff in a major publication. There’s been little upward mobility for him, if there’s any at all. Well, it’s paying for the good life, several stories up a condominium. Or at least his wife does – with far less physical work, at an office. You see, she and her parents are already rich. She is used to the pedestal that her husband has been working years to climb to. It’s as if she can just hand out altitude to anyone. (The director literally puts her at the top of a building, staring at several stories of depth, in one of the film’s nightmare sequences. Not a random gift that you’d like to see in action.)
He wants out. He wants to get that cushy gig in Malacanang. If he keeps on doing his job, instead of letting his wife take care of the finances, he will get there. No matter how low paying his current job is. Baby steps, up that proverbial corporate ladder. Maybe, he wants to pack his bags and leave, and go to an even higher place on his own account, not subsumed by someone else’s power. But there are things he still wants to hold onto, because it is integral to his being. A family. A wife. A home. Protected by a man, because a man just has to. He is supposed to. It’s what his father showed him. It’s what his society tells him. A man provides, a woman nurtures. Not the other way around.
Yet he’s not allowing the woman to nurture, much less nurture him, thus stepping on somebody else’s being. Which bothers his wife. She doesn’t get to self-actualize much.
The journalist goes home from one of his assignments, and takes something along with him. Something from the river. Something indigenous. Something alien to the liberal angst of their Western lives, with their condominiums and private schools. Something that chose to stick with him, so he can be made to stay away from it all, like he had always wanted. After all, he wants to be freed. He wants these constraints to disappear, while holding on to the things that complete him.
That ‘something’ is a water-based entity that creeps into the details of their lives, to a point wherein he can’t drink anything that resembles water. Soup is too hot for him. Coffee tastes vile. It takes the form of a young girl (Therese Malvar), so it can pull his son to the depths of a swimming pool, while a cold shower unlocks the sensuality of his wife’s ego and self-worth, in all its brashness. Meanwhile, it’s just mean to his daughter, and leaves wet markings on the mat so she won’t forget.
It haunts them in many guises, all of which are female. It is a girlfriend to the son, and a seducer to the husband, a playground bully to the daughter, and to the wife, a liar, a gossiper, a rumormonger, a quiet rival, a source of false strength.
You look at all of these, and you just frown upon how feudal all these roles are for both women and men. But is this the be all and end all of the problem? Or are we so overwhelmed by all of these gendered presumptions, from all sides of all spectrums, that they’ve gone on to occupy our perception and our reality, and even the framing of our memories, that someone, or something, can just use this against us and make us literally drown in it.
There’s a pool in their condominium. Perfect.
See, the emasculation isn’t meted out as a punishment. It is ALREADY there! It is even presented as an opening, a fissure, a crack in this picture of a home, from where a flood enters and breaks up rocks. When there’s supposed to be a foundation (assuming the male is supposed to be this foundation), there is none. It’s literally what this mischievous nymph exploits to get at the lead guy and his family. And when that happens, there’s nothing cathartic about it. There’s only inevitability.
Sure, you are the provider, the master of your house, the protector, the bedrock to your spouse and to kids. Are you willing to take that all the way to your grave?
Ilawod might lead itself to both a Men’s Rights Activist and a Third Wave Feminist reading, seeing as how it provides ammunition to both sides with respect to the somewhat crumbling gender narratives of the times, in the face of this gender awareness that’s been awakened by social media and the ‘empowering’ nature of its bully pulpits. On the other hand, it trashes both the misogynists and misandrists of these camps by invoking pre-colonial culture that already has an empowered view of women and is prone to matriarchy, before the Western colonists arrived with their identity politics and their First World problems. That has a claim to the land, the seas, and the people more than these do.
What is really meted out is an indictment of the world that we live in, the terms of being with which we have now resigned ourselves, to such a point that we are leaving little else behind, beside petty squabbles. I mean, that’s what water does, right? It washes things away.
The movie is very much like the nymph itself, mischievous, cruel, sadistic, putting its characters through duress, using the alienation that both the males and the females feel in these times where both are constantly being questioned in these online show trials for who or what they are supposed to be. It traps them, it suffocates them, chokes faulty purpose out of them, and drags them several feet below.
Then, the lights dim.