On Sonny Calvento's "Nabubulok"

by Richard Bolisay

▶︎ Nabubulok works best when it is depicting its small provincial setting and emphasizing the people’s natural tendency to gossip, their keen investment in the lives of others, rooted in a family’s apprehension when one of its kin goes missing. This portrait of a neighborhood appearing to move in oneness can be familiar to those who have lived in one, where every little thing gets noticed and exaggerated, where it’s impossible to keep a secret and truth is pursued through relentless idle talk. The film, however, touches only on this momentarily and does not go any further, preferring instead to deliver suspense and, towards the end, social commentary.

It also works slightly as a mystery, in which clues are scattered throughout the story and some of which succeed in underscoring the ambiguity, in creating puzzles within puzzles, in substantiating the stifling darkness and shaky camera movements. But the film also leaves this hook the way it leaves its observation of the community: It solves the mystery quickly, for it seems to be so averse to tightness — as seen in the repetitive dialogue, uncreative staging of scenes, and confusing character development — that when the text in the ending comes out, when those words pronouncing the characters’ futures are revealed, one logical response is to laugh out loud despite the seriousness of it all. Such gesture, well intentioned may it be, comes across like a joke, a prank that proudly bares the film’s failures, its inability to tie up the loose ends after allowing the narrative to go in so many directions. It gets lost in its own maze, and when it arrives at the exit, it decides to do the lousiest thing: to prophesize.

Contrary to the claim of the GMA head writer Suzette Doctolero in a Facebook post calling it ugly and rotten — a bad example of someone in the industry pitting one film against another, displaying the kind of self-importance that imposes one’s taste on a general audience instead of encouraging them to see the film and judge it on their own — Nabubulok offers something worth seeing: a palette consisting of varying tones and textures, a love story masquerading as a crime story, an alarming reminder of the times. Although it may not be satisfying as a whole — as some of its actors tend to go over the top and shatter its authenticity (JC Santos, Gina Alajar) — the film’s currency and identifiable political context bring about relevant discussions on present-day social issues that can make up for the coherence, and steadiness, it lacks. ***

Richard Bolisay is a film critic. This piece was previously published on his site Lilok Pelikula under "Dispatches from Cinemalaya 2017 (Part 3)," September 8 2017.