When I was a child, I had a yaya who flourished in her fantastical stories. It was a childhood replete with the most vivid tales of folk lore and superstitions. She loved scaring me until I was blue and shaking under my sheets. But then she would smile and assure me that bad things happen only to bad people. How naïve, right? But it was sweet, and I soon learned to cope. Children are resilient and learn to adjust in time. I still get my goose bumps when watching horror flicks, but I can now sit through a marathon of them wearing a poker face, seemingly without care, but with toes curled down below.
“Tumbok” is one of those superstitions that I’ve come across early on. It’s when a street or two converge, and this focal point becomes the epicenter of bad luck. This is the point of contention in Topel Lee’s “Tumbok”.
Young couple Ronnie (Carlo Aquino) and Grace (Cristine Reyes) inherit a room in a doddering, ramshackle building right where three streets converge. Most of its tenants have all but deserted this tenement, except for the few occupants in the same floor as Grace and Ronnie’s. The transfer has been smooth as the couple is being ushered into their new abode, with great help coming from their landlord Mark (Ryan Eigenmann). But things go bump in the dark, and Grace is plagued by visions and sounds that don’t quite exist on second sight. Gradually, a series of mishap characterize the fate of the building’s inhabitants: an explosion at the students’ room; a constantly bickering couple (Wendy Valdez and DJ Durano). Moreover, there’s a ghostly child named Yumi who vanishes just as quickly.
Furthermore, cataclysms seem to follow the couple. Ronnie develops a non-healing wound where worms crawl out of and Grace starts dreaming of being taken advantaged by Mark. Even job opportunities where Grace has already been accepted disappear (the employing officer dies). Are these things related to their present home? Lumen (LJ Moreno), the couple’s cousin, soon confirms this, albeit fatally so.
Early on, the story is congested with recurring scenes set to establish an atmosphere of dread: an off-kilter music that suddenly turns into loud bangs saunters along with visions of ashen faced children – peeping through doors, gazing from the foot of the stair, morbidly dipped under water in a tub, or gliding sideways behind their backs. How much mood do you need when you find this gimmick nauseatingly repeated 5 times in the first 20 minutes of the movie! Does it get scarier the more we repeat it? The element of surprise dissipates as quickly after the 5th appearance-disappearance and this “contraption” becomes exhausting. You end up getting sensitized - and it isn't even half way through the whole movie.
Unfortunately, there are more derivative scenes you can easily identify from ten dozens of horror flicks: doors suddenly opening (this happens 4x or so); the protagonist waking up from a bothersome dream (this happens 3x); invisible creatures creeping under the bed; crawling hands moving under the blanket then sliding through the hair; ghouls posturing behind Cristine or Carlo like they are about to devour them, but when they look behind, there’s no one there. Yup, all of the above, with nauseating regularity.
Where is the T in T-junction?
At some point in the film, you realize Topel Lee is stuck in a narrative plateau. Yes, the director has an enviable cinematic eye. He creates images that reek with mood and an impending doom, but he has, of late, been victim to the “horror checklist”. He dutifully enumerates them in his cinematic pad, then peppers the whole story with “lots of it”. We are seeing him in an unflattering light. The realization becomes clear: Topel Lee is not a competent story teller. In this movie, he is completely at a loss. Desperately!
I once rationalized this suspicion and pointed the blame to mainstream film making because I have seen his “Dilim” (2005, with Mario Magallona and Rica Peralejo) and the “Ang Manunulat” segment of the omnibus project “ImaheNasyon”. These two films were progressive and entertaining works from Lee. But let’s check out his last 3 movies: the execrable “White House”, the vomit-inducing “Wapakman” (with Manny Pacquiao, and one of the worst films of the decade), and the uneven “Sundo” (with Robin Padilla and Sunshine Dizon). Clickthecity reviews have been kind to Mr. Lee, but after several movies, I just do not understand a statement like “…but he's capable of so much more.” More what? More of “My Kuya’s Wedding?” After making these last three films, Topel Lee has indeed shown what he is capable of doing. And this isn’t much!
Is there really an immense talent behind someone who shamelessly imitates Yam Laranas’ “ghosts in the tenement” tales? Are people really so forgetful of Laranas “Sigaw” (with Iza Calzado) and its American incarnation “The Echo” (Jesse Bradford and Iza Calzado)? Some of the characters in "Sigaw" included an abusive cop and his battered wife. Lee updates this in "Tumbok" with an abusive security guard and his wife (Durano and Valdez), which is a demotion since, heck, it’s just DJ Durano playing the part, and we don’t want to upstage Carlo Aquino who is the police department’s official photographer, do we? These “trapped characters” keep re-experiencing these events in vicious cycle. Wasn’t that the delectable conceit in Yam Laranas’ movie’s epilogue?
Even the details are indolent. When Ronnie bangs at the door of the rambunctious students to ask them to pipe down, they just ignore him. So he pulls his police badge out from somewhere under his shorts! When he visits a hospital to see his wife, he once again flashes his badge when all he needs to do is ask for the room number since he is the patient’s husband after all. His badge is glued somewhere in the recesses of his ass, and he's just too happy to flash them when he can.
Once again, we turn “medical”. In one scene, Aling Elsie (Malou de Guzman) points out, “Buntis ka? Ang lakas ng pintig ng leeg mo eh.” Distended neck veins are a sign of pregnancy? You better rush that girl to the hospital because such distention is synonymous with right-sided heart failure more than pregnancy. I have never heard of such hogwash! When Ronnie unfolds the bandage from his arm wound, he finds it throbbing and growing, with worms crawling out of a hole, yet we don’t exactly see him rushing to the doctor. He treats it like it's a pimple waiting to be squashed. Cash strapped maybe? “Naubos ang savings ko sa libing ni Lumen,” he reasons later.
Cristine Reyes is an engrossing presence, making this cycle of clichés a wee bit tolerable, and Carlo Aquino makes the most of his low-ranked police officer with an adumbral past. Unfortunately, pairing Reyes and Aquino together was like lighting a torch filled with water, instead of petrol. There isn’t any spark to speak of. Ara Mina and Jao Mapa’s cameos (a side story that supposedly explains Ronnie’s past) feel incongruent to the idea of "tumbok". After all, how can Ronnie forget everything about his origin? A coping mechanism to forget? Was he an amnesiac in the vein of Toni Gonzaga (“My Amnesia Girl”)? Ryan Eigenmann renders the flick some gravitas, but his incubus (a demon who descends upon people to have sexual intercourse with them in their sleep) feels too manipulated a character to be believed, a plot device that doesn't quite hold water. Are we still talking about “tumbok” (“poison arrow” in feng shui) here or is this a separate entity? The devil's child, perhaps? These fusion of ideas clutter around in confusion. But, hey, at least we have a lot of atmospheric shots, di ba?
Finally, just to lay out the concept of “tumbok” on the discussion table, check out our diagram of “tumbok” above (courtesy of www.cavitehomes.com) and compare this with the “other” entity called “Curved Knife” road. Then compare this with the building used in the movie (see the photo above). It hardly describes a “T-junction” to me, does it? Maybe they should have re-titled this one with something more appropriate. Like “Hilo”?