The Thriller Near Manila
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
For Americans, the long history of devious villains, picturesque explosions, and game-theory hostage standoffs on film has made most violent scenarios virtually the property of Hollywood movie magic. Even our particular age of terroristic violence has been efficiently repackaged for mass consumption on Fox’s hit “24.”
That burden of histories (real and filmed) is part of what makes “Cavite” a rare accomplishment. This extraordinary shoe-string production, cobbled together by two friends, restores the pulp premises of the thriller from internationally marketable fantasy to terrifying, plausible local reality.
Shot on handheld cameras in the Philippine slum that gives the movie its name, “Cavite” follows one man’s nightmare wanderings at the behest of Abu Sayyaf terrorists. Adam, a young Filipino-American security guard visiting family, has just arrived at the airport when a cellphone in his backpack rings. The caller, who belongs to a the group that is holding Adam’s mother and sister hostage, proceeds to make Adam slave to his demands, sometimes odd and ultimately horrific.
Raising easy comparisons to the burgeoning genre of cellphone thrillers such as “Cellular” and “Phone Booth” misses all that makes “Cavite” what it is. Co-directors Ian Della Llana and Ian Gamazon (who plays Adam) get more mileage than these blockbusters with a geographically and politically specific scenario, an ordinary-schlub leading man, alleyway guerrilla camerawork – the list goes on.
The terrorist sends Adam on strange errands to various landmarks in preparation for some unknown act. But the most terrifying thing is the man’s complete invisibility. “Cavite” pushes the cellphone drama convention of the unseen caller to an almost uncanny paranoiac extreme, with a terrorist who sees everything Adam does no matter where he goes.
Because the logic of the terrorist’s demands emerges slowly, the film has the kind of bottomless, quicksand suspense that you read about in accounts of snake-head-smuggler loansharks or Nigerian scam artists. There’s always one more task, one more fool’s errand, one more pint of blood to squeeze.
Adam’s gradual resignation to the futility of his situation captures the toxic blend of anxiety and fatigue induced by terror – omnipresent and yet beyond the ken of any one individual, in a setup that rivals the stately static paranoia of “Cache.” The trapped feeling is enhanced by the camera’s intense focus on Adam as he hustles through the actual alleys and byways of Cavite, past trash-strewn waterways and all the third-world children without pants.
Mr. Gamazon, whose sweat-stained Gap button-down becomes the film’s lo-fi emblem, is not a professional actor but his lack of experience only makes him more effective. Adam is an everyman: When the movie starts (briefly in America), he’s not some cop who’s just quit the force or has vague marital strife, he’s a guy whose girlfriend is breaking up with him over the phone and, with matter-of-fact personal detail, tells him she is having an abortion. Spluttering, brooding, and whimpering through his travails, Adam is an office drone turned totally overwhelmed death-tourist.
Which brings up the cellphone tormentor’s side project, a kind of forced ethnographic tour. The man on the phone doesn’t just want Adam to carry out the terrorist group’s bidding, he wants to rub the American’s nose in his original heritage and, make him complicit. That entails ordering Adam to eat a pungent local delicacy (fertilized duck egg), but it also introduces an intriguing principled conflict between Adam, also a Muslim, and his tormentor. Adam protests that Abu Sayyaf twists the concept of jihad; the terrorist pleads self-preservation by citing a frighteningly specific litany of anti-Muslim massacres allegedly conducted by the government.
It’s a chilling moment that underlines the silliness lurking in American thrillers that try to argue that an Iowan would be at risk of an action-movie kidnapping. The actual Abu Sayyaf kidnappings and bombing plots that have occurred make for a sobering contrast, and when Adam’s tormentors try to rationalize the horrific acts they make him do to better ensure their completion, there’s a level of Machiavellian evil that no glib Hollywood Euro-villain can match.