In Peque Gallaga's Gangland, a fantasy world of Philippines' youth gang subculture is created. Critic Noel Vera is blinded by the flash and glam of MTV-world of violence and bravado that feels all too unreal.


Peque Gallaga’s Gangland is, on first viewing, a stunner. It’s shot mostly with handheld cameras, sometimes video cameras, and uses various textures and colors - smooth video gray, grainy reds and yellows - and variations in between. It’s layered with rock and rap music from the latest, up-to-the-minute bands, giving it a pulsing, pounding urgency. It’s cut to a no-nonsense rhythm, dispensing with most transition shots altogether, and sometimes speeded up for a comic or alienating effect. At times you see a youth being interviewed and there’s a cut in mid-shot, a few frames snipped out, serving no apparent purpose other than to remind you of the editor’s (or director’s) virtuosity, his ability to drop a few frames in a shot without damaging - enhancing, even - the style and rhythm of his film.

The action scenes are likewise impressive: they’re staged in a random, helter-skelter manner, with boys beating up boys, using pipes and knives and glass shards, anything their hands can pick up. There are wincingly violent moments, particularly when heads are being bashed in, or severed from their necks altogether. The soundtrack actually uses fresh, newly-recorded sounds to indicate body blows - not the cliched thuds of a Fernando Poe action flick, but solid, stunning blows, like sacks of wet meat being pounded again and again. You know that a serious imagination - a real sensibility - is working in this movie.

Ganglands is about the violently nihilistic youth gangs that roam the streets of Manila (particularly the Binondo-Santa Cruz areas). They (or the gang in this film) don’t come from the poorer sections of society, but from the middle classes, their families ranging from those who live in crowded shabby apartments to those rich enough to afford videocams and handsomely dented automobiles for their gang to roam around in.

Watching the film, you come away thinking of it as an eloquent testimony to the tragedy of youth, of its tendency to self-destruct stylishly, with great beauty and glamour. Then you think: wait a minute - what youth gangs? Nothing’s been said in the papers and news shows about youth gangs, not even in the tabloids. The headlines are full of kidnappings, killings and rapes, disasters both man-made and natural (the collapsing economy among them) but not youth gangs. There were youth gangs in the ’60s, but Gangland - with its handheld videocams and rock-’n’-rap score - is clearly of this decade; there are gangs of youths operating along Taft Avenue and even in the Binondo-Sta. Cruz area, but these are mostly beggars, pickpockets, or prostitutes - they don’t operate out of some vaguely romantic sense of rebellion but because they have no choice. A gang this violent, this well-armed, and this heavily publicized should have been front-page news by now.

Okay, perhaps I’m talking from one side of my mouth - John Woo’s Hard-Boiled features ultra-brutal gunrunners while Ringo Lam’s City On Fire is a violently epic film about a ring of jewel thieves (violent jewel thieves?), and they weren’t any more representative of present-day Hong Kong (which resembles a huge shopping mall) than Gangland is representative of present-day Manila (which resembles a gridlocked Bedlam).

If anything, Gangland is an eloquent rebuke of everything this generation of Philippine youths is not. The youths in Gangland band together for protection, firing off guns; ours sit alone before their computers, firing off email messages over the internet. They cruise after dark looking for trouble; ours cruise looking for the trendiest nightspots. They value honor, courage and loyalty; ours value Guess jeans and a good table at the Ayala Center Hard Rock Café. They are rebels without cause, going nowhere and facing no future, but as Gallaga poses and lights and frames them, they shine with a fatalistic glory; the only moment of glory our kids possess or could ever hope to possess are appearances as guest veejays on MTV Asia.

But there’s a deeper, more serious flaw - writer Danton Remoto, coming out of the premiere screening, put it this way: "The film’s all about physical pain; emotional pain is much, much worse." We see children - good-looking, almost beautifully handsome children, nearly all boys - being beaten up and tortured, and because the film is so disjointed, so relentlessly stylized, we don’t feel anything for them other than a vicarious pity. They’re like those bloodied victims you see driving by a car wreck - you’re horrified by the gore and suffering, then you put the wreck behind you and forget the whole thing.

Gallaga is obviously concerned about achieving a new look and, as far as Philippine cinema is concerned, he’s succeeded (though he’s obviously been inspired by the visual style of NYPD Blues, and his story seems to borrow from Natural Born Killers - down to the newscaster who exploits the youths and their violence). He’s forgotten, however, to put in human relationships, recognizable characters, a sensible plot structure; in short, a story.

John Woo and Ringo Lam, for all their lapses of reality, never committed that sin: relationships in their films were complex, the loyalties inextricably tangled. Woo and Lam were careful to choreograph their action set-pieces; they were equally careful to choreograph the intimate, homoerotically intense pas-de-deux performed by their protagonists - between cop and undercover cop in Hard-Boiled, between gangster and undercover cop in City On Fire.

But Woo and Lam glide past their flaws through the use of baroque emotions and sheer style; an even more glaring example to set against the film would be the searingly honest early work of Martin Scorsese. His Mean Streets (another influence on Gangland) was all about relationships - about the streets of New York’s Little Italy and the petty, small-minded people with Mafia connections who stalked those streets. The film ends in a flash of violence - not much by Gangland standards, a simple shooting - but by then you’ve been so caught up in the characters’ lives that when the gun goes off you’re suddenly short of breath, as if someone had sunk his fist into your stomach.

Gangland is a courageous work, and Gallaga’s most successful effort in years, though I’d still rate Scorpio Nights as his one great erotic masterpiece - a gorgeously stylized film that seems, intentionally or not, to mirror the nihilism we all felt during the last years of the Marcos regime. In Gangland, Gallaga still shows his lust to make gorgeously stylized visuals, to break loose with the tried-and-true in local cinema; it also shows that he’s in more need than ever of a story editor with a relentless sense of logic. I’ve heard one influential columnist call the film "very violent" and "disturbing;" I agree with the first description, but question the second - you can only be disturbed by what you feel is true.

Note: Businessworld, September 25, 1998. The above also appears in Noel Vera's Critic After Dark: A Review Of Philippine Cinema (BigO Books).
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August 21, 2007

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