Sunday, November 6, 2011

Aswang – Of Lazy Runners and Subterranean Monsters

When Gabriel and Anya’s (Albie Casino and Jillian Ward respectively) parents figure in a property dispute, the siblings suddenly find themselves orphans when their household is massacred by hired assassins Rodel, Queenie and the reluctant Daniel (Marc Abaya, Nina Jose and Paulo Avelino respectively). To escape their parents’ slayers, their getaway vehicle eventually takes them to far flung Pampanga, looking for a distant relative they couldn’t locate.

But amidst deceptively bucolic sugarcane fields and ramshackle dwellings, something sinister is gripping San Isidro. The rural folk speak in hushed whispers, goading them not to stay on. People are dying from a paroxysm of attacks brought about by blood-curdling, albeit ravenous creatures called “abwak” – humanoid forms that hybrid giant lizards and crows that travel by flight and subterranean inclination (think big “moles”). Suddenly, San Isidro becomes the unseemly setting of this life-and-death chase. Little did Gabriel, Anya and their assailants know that creatures more deleterious than the vagaries of human greed lurk at the fringes of the barrio.

While scampering for shelter, Gabriel and Anya, hopelessly aimless and wayward, are unaware that the baddies have traced their whereabouts.

Daniel and company arrive in Pampanga. Then comes the enigmatic Hasmin who seemingly glides into the place like a breath of fresh air. When Daniel finally meets the lass, he couldn’t shake her off his mind, but on his way to further seek her, he’s attacked by an abwak. How does he survive the attack? Will he find Gabriel and Anya? More importantly, would he be able to pull the trigger this time?

And why is a hitman like Daniel circumspect?

Director Jerrold Tarog weaves a tale that would, from the ground up, hold your attention as he takes advantage of cultural mores and rich local color of the Philippine countryside. The “abwak” hails from Tarog’s imagination, his new age version of the “aswang” afflicting the countryside. Sounds like a modern masterpiece, right?

Unfortunately, it isn't.

Tarog is able to realize the visual stipulation that concocts this monster. After all, a horror piece rests its raison d’etre on a feasible, convincing monster. The creature itself is a local version of the “graboids” from Ron Underwood’s 90’s flick “Tremors”. And let’s not forget “Dune’s” sandworms. What bothers me is its wavering nature. It’s a humanoid form that can transform itself into a crow-like creature; it can subsist underwater like a “bayawak”, then burrow itself underground like subterranean animals. (See example here: or here:

If an abwak is indeed as versatile as it’s supposed to be, why are their numbers dwindling? Isn’t such trait advantageous for natural selection and evolution? Flight allows them to explore other places and disperse their species. But they choose to stay in a sparsely populated barrio at the risk of eventually wiping out their kind. What gives?

Aswang” fails to deliver a sense of urgency in several scenes that require heart-stopping pursuits. In one of its earlier scenes alone, when an abwak attacks a drunken JC Tiuseco on his way home, the monster throws his victim down and you don’t even see the victim parry the creature’s attack. He just looked at him, enamored by his prosthetics, with upper extremities flaccid and passive - and allowing the monster to take a huge bite. Thus begins our foray into some of the laziest victims this side of gorefest.


While on the run, you hardly feel the immediacy of flight when Albie Casino and Jillian Ward drive away from the killers. Most of the film would have them in constant lackadaisical departure. Check out the scene when they were rescued by Hasmin from the abwaks’ cavern before they turn into food. Instead of running for safety and fleeing as fast as they could, you find these dingbats leisurely walking “in the park”. If you’re about to become part of the buffet, would you take your sweet time to leave?

The same laziness is found in scenes involving head henchman Rodel (Marc Abaya) who, after getting attacked by the same monsters, preferred staying on. You experience the incursion of monsters first hand and you choose to merely stand beside your vehicle and wait for your comrades? This doesn't make sense. When he eventually runs out of bullets in a later scene, he turns away – and walks! Yes, he walks away from the creatures! Haven’t people in Tarog’s world ever heard of that verb called “run”? This preposterous apathy among victims take the fun away in a movie that’s supposed to pump our adrenaline by laying on a good dose of thrill and urgency; the instinct of “fight or flight” has been disregarded in cinema’s most indolent thriller.

How do you – as an audience – relate to a scary movie when the characters plagued by monsters aren't even too concerned to flee – even when the creatures come charging by? This sense of apathy doesn't belong to such genre, i.e. “suspense thriller” but to a middling drama with a director whose vision is focused on his generation of atmosphere and visual effects than on character development, persuasive performance and viable staging of dread, of panic, of trepidation.

The narrative has so much on its plate. It hobbles the cinematic focus. There’s Daniel’s back story (why he turns into a hunky vengeful dingbat who can’t pull the trigger, you’d suspect he has a degenerative muscular disease); there’s Hasmin and sisters Stella and Isabel’s (Precious Lara Quigaman and the promising Ana Vicente) morbid historical past; the impending wedding of Hasmin to their tribal leader Ipo Moises (Bembol Roco), a budding romance, etc.

Lovi Poe glides through her character like an arcane damsel filled with pathos and compunction. She is in fact the film’s single salvation, although Paulo Avelino doesn’t do so badly himself. But Avelino’s character teeters with brimming indecisiveness. Though he is introduced as someone with the conviction to avenge his slain father, he mostly comes off irresolute. Poe and Avelino’s chemistry is undeniable though. They look good together and they navigate the silver screen with a degree of tension and diversion.

Nina Jose as Queenie

Albie Casino, good looking as he is, is surprisingly droll - and stiff. He wasn’t this bad in “Mara Clara”, but in “Aswang”, he fills his character Gabriel with pussyfoot demeanor, you’re almost sure he isn’t capable of fathering a child from the get-go. But then appearances are deceiving. Casino, as Gabriel, navigates his surroundings with detachment, ironic in itself considering Gabriel just lost his parents in the most violent way. Doesn't Gabriel deserve an emotional girth the size of Araneta Coliseum? He might as well be enjoying a day out in a leisure park than eluding 1) assassins, 2) flesh-eating creatures. Why are the most beautiful faces the hammiest of actors? (Richard Gutierrez: check; Aljur Abrenica: check!) Jillian Ward’s “I’m a cute tyke” schtick doesn’t work either; her posturings are more annoying than “cute” since cuteness doesn’t make a horror movie.

Marc Abaya, playing the meaner-than-mean head assassin, once again takes his character with livid thespic strokes, you can’t help suspect he would eventually transmogrify into Beelzebub himself. This depiction is exactly similar to his role in Joaqui Valdez’sDagim” (about cannibals in the mountains). He could have hopped from that set to this, there wouldn’t be discernable contrariety. This has always been Abaya’s unfortunate inclination. When he portrays, he goes all out, with no heed for restraint. Sad.

Precious Lara Quigaman is decorative as Stella (Hasmin’s elder sister), and actually provides emphasis on the excesses of Tarog’s story. Tarog could have done away with the character and come out with a tighter story. Why does Ipo Moises (Bembol Roco) threaten Hasmin with Stella’s well being when he could have done it on Hasmin herself? Joem Bascon plays Kuya Efren, Stella’s beau, but isn't given much. In fact, Nina Jose registers better as Queenie, one of the assassins. She looks enthralling and menacing - like a James Bond belle; a more effective tack as a nemesis than all the ministrations of Nonie Buencamino (who plays the mastermind) and Marc Abaya combined.

The languid pace of the narrative could have worked well before the requisite escalation into cinematic fireworks. The creatures could have been powerful images that stick to our consciousness. A lot of things could have worked. But it takes me back to the apparent disinterest of the victims when being pursued by the subterranean creatures – and, of course, Albie Casino’s enthralling cluelessness. If they cared less about being eaten alive, why should I care?

Lovi Poe

Lovi Poe

Paulo Avelino

Paulo Avelino

Paulo Avelino comes to his own as a leading man.

Albie Casino

Albie Casino

Albie Casino

Jillian Ward

Marc Abaya in "Dagim"

Marc Abaya


kent said...

This is a nice movie...

Cathy Pena said...

Good thing someone else thought so. After all, movie watching is a subjective experience. Not that "nice" in my own opinion though. :)

Anonymous said...

I don't understand why they had to directly name the place where the Abwaks thrive. In this movie's case, Pampanga.

Because if you name the place, then you should might as well base your monsters from the lore of the Kapampangans.

True, like most Philippine groups, Kapampangans have aswang concepts, those that turn into animals and eat human flesh. But why need to introduce a fictional Abwak? The writer/s could have just reinterpreted the already existing term Aswang (which is also within Kapampangan folklore).

at least then the title will be appropriate: ASWANG. but why make ASWANG the title when the movie is not about aswangs but about the invented Abwak?


Cathy Pena said...

@ jason:

When they were filming this, word got out that this was a modern retelling of a Peque Gallaga-Lore Reyes movie. There were two - 1992's "Aswang" with Alma Moreno as the shapeshifting monster (Manilyn Reynes and Aiza Seguerra co-starred); then there was "Sa Piling ng Aswang" starring Maricel Soriano. I'm not sure which Gallaga-Reyes flick they based this from. The plot seems too different.

I guess Jerrold Tarog wanted something "more original"; he wanted something he could call his own. After all, he's one of the few anointed "great ones" in the biz. Unfortunately, it didn't work as well as I expected.

Could you imagine how many people it would attract if they titled it "Abwak"? No one would watch. The term "aswang" has become so popular, an American production - also called "Aswang" even came out in 1994, filmed in Wisconsin - with an all-American cast. Even its German release used the term: "Aswang: Da Ultimative Bose".

I get your point though. Why use Pampanga, instead of a fictional town? If they set it in Cebu or Davao, it would carry a degree of unacceptability as well because the concept of aswang and its variations also ring true in those places.

There is something irreconcilable in their intentions, i.e. they wanted to use "Aswang", but would rather modify its nature and call it "abwak".