‘Vampariah’ as subversive ‘aswang’ film
In contrast with politics, the consensus among Filipinos is that 2016 has been an unqualified triumph for their cinema.
Not only did we have a second major prize at the Cannes Film Festival, we also won major prizes at A-list European and Asian filmfests, topped by the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Even if we concede that using foreign acclaim as a measure of achievement might be problematic, the output of local film artists has been no less appreciable. Whatever else one’s position on Rodrigo Duterte might be, one will have to acknowledge that the first Metro Manila Film Festival during his presidency recalled the better MMFF editions of the Marcos years – which were some of the few positive contributions the dictatorship ever made.
Because of my status as an Overseas Filipino Worker, it takes me a while before I could watch all the significant Pinoy film releases of any given year. The unusual distinction of 2016 is that no single film, or even a couple or three, is or are front-running for that dubious credit of being “year’s best.” Even if one extends this insight further, by including Filipino films made outside the country, one could still have a noteworthy sample like Baby Ruth Villarama’s “Sunday Beauty Queen,” a documentary made in Hong Kong that turned out to be the MMFF’s surprise winner.
My own contribution to the list of memorable titles in the batch of 2016 is from even farther afield, a movie made in the U.S. by FilAm talents, tackling the usual issues of national identity and alienation, but using the unexpectedly “trashy” genre of horror, in its even more reviled goth-punk configuration.
Titled “Vampariah,” the film, directed and written by Matthew Abaya, has been earning raves from viewers who had seen it in various U.S. festivals (including San Francisco’s FACINE, where I first watched it as the event’s closing film, and where Abaya’s short films were being screened over the past two decades).
In resorting to a format that had proved useful for a long list of discourses on Otherness, Abaya manages to break out of the usual FilAm film’s stifling and predictable realist mode, and kicks open a Pandora’s box of lower mythology, colonial excess, racialized cross-cultural conflict, volatility of identity and desire, and (literally) posthuman development.
“Vampariah” was intended as an expanded version of Abaya’s short film “Bampinay.” In Abaya’s full-length debut, Bampinay becomes one of two lead characters – or, one could also argue, half of one. The title more likely refers to Mahal, a FilAm vampire hunter who sets out to avenge her parents’ death by tracking a specific type of supernatural predator, one that has started attracting the attention of American celebrity ghosthunters. The most notable instance of the latter is that of John Bates (a “whitesplainer,” per Abaya) of “Crypt Hunter,” who keeps hilariously enunciating “ass-wang” – the Midwestern twang makes it sound even more risqué – before being unceremoniously devoured on-cam. While wondering why her minder refuses to grant her more challenging assignments despite her superior vampire-killing abilities, Mahal manages to track down a particularly pernicious ‘manananggal’ (a self-segmenting viscera-sucker) from a rural town through Manila to San Francisco.
The monstrous entity in question turns out to be Bampinay, and it would be no big surprise for horror aficionados to predict that hunter and hunted discover that they have more in common than they realize. Their sisterly bromance (womance?) is in many ways preferable to the guilt-ridden treatments in more famous samples such as Harry Kümel’s “Daughters of Darkness” (1971) and Tony Scott’s “The Hunger” (1983), while the 300-year-old Bampinay’s critique of colonial history, derived from firsthand experience, would be the envy of the bloodsucking dissertation candidate in Abel Ferrara’s “The Addiction” (1995). Vampariah herself calls to mind a whole lot of other generic predecessors, notably Stephen Norrington’s “Blade” (1998) and Len Wiseman’s “Underworld” (2003).
The intertextual possibilities in “Vampariah” are even more extensive than the titles I’ve listed, an inherent attraction of the typical B-movie product. Yet where the B-movie generally rests on this attribute, “Vampariah” takes the extra step of inculcating an awareness of local and regional cross-references, a challenge that can best be formulated and achieved by our mixed-blood compatriots. Not since the Blood-Island movies of Eddie Romero and Gerardo de Leon have there been alien monsters (not necessarily a redundancy) in Filipino horror films, and if for nothing else, “Vampariah” deserves to be remembered for featuring a showdown between a ‘manananggal’ and a ‘jiangshi,’ an East Asian reanimated corpse that moves around by hopping and that extracts qi or the life force from human victims.
Abaya takes full advantage of the B-movie’s subversive potential as well as its ability to supply guilty pleasure, and the sadness in the experience of watching this fine little sweetmeat is in the awareness that it may be destined to subsist in the liminal world that its own characters inhabit. But then we can always take heart in Bampinay’s assurance to Mahal: “We’re aswangs. We can do anything.” In the perfect world that these intrepid kick-ass characters envision, they and people like them would dominate cinema screens everywhere. If the movie happens to breeze by your vicinity, don’t hesitate to welcome these ravishing monsters into your life. It would be a drop-dead occasion that could reanimate any vestige of movie love you still possess.
Joel David is Professor for Cultural Studies at Inha University in Incheon, Korea and was founding Director of the University of the Philippines Film Institute. His archival blog, Amauteurish! contains digital editions of his books and articles on Philippine cinema. In 2016, he was awarded the Gawad Lingap Sining (Culture Nurturer Award) life-achievement prize at the 23rd FACINE Film Festival in San Francisco, Calif.