Gangland is, on first viewing, a stunner. Its 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. Its layered with rock and
rap music from the latest, up-to-the-minute bands, giving it
a pulsing, pounding urgency. Its 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 theres a cut in
mid-shot, a few frames snipped out, serving no apparent purpose
other than to remind you of the editors (or directors)
virtuosity, his ability to drop a few frames in a shot without
damaging - enhancing, even - the style and rhythm of his film.
scenes are likewise impressive: theyre 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.
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) dont 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.
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? Nothings 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 dont 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.
Im talking from one side of my mouth - John Woos
Hard-Boiled features ultra-brutal gunrunners while Ringo Lams
City On Fire is a violently epic film about a ring of jewel
thieves (violent jewel thieves?), and they werent 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).
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.
a deeper, more serious flaw - writer Danton Remoto, coming out
of the premiere screening, put it this way: "The films
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 dont feel anything for them other than a vicarious
pity. Theyre like those bloodied victims you see driving
by a car wreck - youre horrified by the gore and suffering,
then you put the wreck behind you and forget the whole thing.
is obviously concerned about achieving a new look and, as far
as Philippine cinema is concerned, hes succeeded (though
hes 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).
Hes forgotten, however, to put in human relationships,
recognizable characters, a sensible plot structure; in short,
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
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 Yorks
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 youve been so caught up in the characters lives
that when the gun goes off youre suddenly short of breath,
as if someone had sunk his fist into your stomach.
is a courageous work, and Gallagas most successful effort
in years, though Id 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 hes in more need than ever of a story editor with
a relentless sense of logic. Ive 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.
Businessworld, September 25, 1998.
The above also appears in Noel Vera's Critic After Dark: A Review
Of Philippine Cinema (BigO Books).
Click here to order.