Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Witness - Pretentions and Indulgence of Mood

Indonesian horror had a renaissance barely a decade ago when director Rizal Mantovani came up with his well made indie ouvre "Jelangkung" which managed to crossover international borders. There were undeniable references to "The Blair Witch Project" but the film was unmistakably Asian in theme, slant and texture. And it was darn scary. Mantovani followed this with the "Kuntilanak" trilogy - accounting for the country's version of "aswang". Though this should have encouraged a resurgence of the well-made genre in Indonesia, this has turned into a cacophony of - pardon my French - vomit-inducing, mind-numbing works like Helfi Kardit's "Bangku Kosong" (Empty Chair) which gratuitously displayed the logic-free narratives almost pathognomonic of Indonesian horror.

Muhammad Yusuf's "The Witness" awkwardly endeavors to cross the thin line dividing horror from suspense thriller, but the end product tilts towards mediocrity. And what was supposedly a renaissance became a virulent epidemic of dime-a-dozen scarefests.


Angel (Gwen Zamora) finally decides to join her expat family in Jakarta who had moved in the Indonesian capital 10 years ago. Three months into her migration, Angel is gradually settling down in their lavish home. But one fateful day, she meets a stranger who massacres her household. Six people get shot to death, including her parents and younger sister Safara (Kimberly Ryder). As she hatches for an escape, the unknown assailant eventually tracks her and leaves her for dead.

A few weeks later, Angel wakes up a survivor. What she has witnessed has turned into a recurring dream where she is eternally pursued by the murderer whose identity she doesn't recognize. Moreover, a young man's image intermittently slices into her reverie - he either cuts himself or blows himself to smithereens. Why was her family decimated? Is Angel still in imminent danger?

Buoyed by enviable production values and resplendent cinematography (Joel F. Zola), Muhammad Yusuf's "The Witness" impels with great promise. In the early scene where indiscriminate firing occurs, the audience is soon submerged in some wild hypothetical quandary. Random violence from a disgruntled mind? After all, killing people couldn't be anything less, right?

The movie gradually spins into a yarn of wrath and retribution. While we acknowledge that the genre necessitates use of mood to generate atmosphere, the film lays this technique with overbearing, albeit insolent splendor. Protracted mood soon turns into ennui. I have never been so bored watching a suspense thriller in my life! This wasn't nibbling on nails or sitting at the edge of my seat; this was generation of impatience! Simply put, everything in this film takes forever to happen!

When the protagonist (Gwen Zamora) finds a key on the floor, she picks them up with gratingly slow pace it couldn't be convenient for her arching back, could it? When she opens a door, you witness how the knob turns for 2 snail-paced minutes! When she opens a drawer, this takes even longer than one cycle of respiration! If she kept this up, she would, I reckon, turn cyanotic! This gratuitous and peremptory "call to mood" turns compulsive. No action moves with normal pace! This tack allows the audience 's attention to meander from too much atmospheric jostling.

To be honest, waiting for its narrative climax was like anticipation of a root canal! You want it over and done with to end your agony!

Straight forward storytelling is lost in this megman's desperate bid to impress. The result is one of contumelious cinematic conceit that irritates than entertains. It also highlights the stark inability to maneuver its premise into something vaguely frightening.

"The Witness" is a joint project, a co-production if you must, between Indonesia's Skylar Pictures and the Philippines' GMA Films. But it is clear that the artistic reign is being held by the Indonesian arm of this venture. GMA's sole contribution is in casting its Filipino lead - Gwen Zamora (Faye of "Enteng Kabisote" film franchise).

While we feel proud that a Filipina had to topbill an Indonesian film again (after Christian Bautista's "A Special Symphony'), we are also baffled by casting director Ida Henares' choice. Sure, Zamora possesses a spellbinding allure, but her acumen is rather raw and tentative. Couldn't they have given the part to a more seasoned actress who deserves a movie - like Marian Rivera or Carla Abellana? These girls ought to be movie stars, instead of mere TV starlets! Give them film projects, for Pete's sake!

In the film, Zamora was made to cry from start to finish, you eventually lose all vestiges of patience. I personally wanted this particular cry-baby to be slaughtered. She was getting on my nerves!


The second part of the narrative revolves around an unlikely triangle: Safara (Kimberly Ryder) gets infatuated with her boyfriend Aris' (Agung Saga) popular father Satria (Pierre Gruno), an iconic musician in the local scene. This emotional upheaval has caused Aris to kill himself. As a consequence, Satria avenges his son's death - by killing everyone in Safara's family!

Delving into the logic of things, why was this father's admonition bent on others? Why not on himself? He was responsible for his actions, wasn't he? He took his son's girlfriend; his action is anything but reputable. If there were one soul of adequate age to discern right from wrong, it would be him! Yet he calls Safara a "bitch" (when he meant "whore"). To his mind, the pretty teenager is the devious one; and he - at close to 60 - was the victim. Very insightful, isn't he? LOL

There are head-scratching moments: When Angel follows a lead on the case, she drops by a stranger's house in the dark of night! When no one answers her knock, she traipses inside the house like it was a leisurely walk in the park. She opens doors; climbs stairs; enters rooms; reads diaries. Is such act really a norm acceptable in Indonesia? In the Philippines, as it is elsewhere in the world, we call it trespassing. This has punitive repercussions.

And why were the rooms in the house all lit up while the place was obviously deserted? They don't conserve electricity in Jakarta? Maybe the proprietor was expecting a visitor? At 7 PM? Then why was he away? Stranger things have happened, you know. As the story enveigles its painful conclusion, a hundred questions hover in your mind.

Agung Saga, playing singer Aris, is a familiar face. We remember him playing a street fighter in the Indonesian film "D' Love" (also directed by Helfi Kardit). Pierre Gruno, playing Satria the father, was a bit too indicative. By the time we learn of his motives, we've conveniently lost interest because he has battered us with blatant emotionality, misplaced and floundering. That being said, he has failed to assuage any form of sympathy - or believability, for that matter. He loved his son too much that he sees him only once a month? Yes, one moment in a month! Such heart breaking affection indeed. Cool dad, huh?

In what could be one of the year's most irritating films, "The Witness" tests fortitude and challenges common sense. At some point, I was prone to suggesting one thing: Yeah, kill everyone in the movie already - and fast!

That could have resolved such torture!

Marcellino Lafrand as Detective Indra

Gwen Zamora as Angel

Agung Saga inspiringly shows how to suck a gun!


Anonymous said...

as i posted in Facebook after I watched THE WITNESS:

"Note to the director: Making your protagonist walk and move slow all the time does not make your film suspenseful."

-jason laxamana

Cathy Pena said...

@ jason:

Amen to that! :)

Armando dela Cruz said...

I was pretty sure that this isn't good, just by watching the trailer. The trailer is supposed to tease us, and its trailer is, well, choppy and uhh--I just can't take it. It's weird. Awkward. Puking blood.

Cathy Pena said...

@ armando:

I'm not sure I remember the trailer of this. Thing is, the movie is such a big bore - and a tad irritating!

Yadu Karu said...


Cathy Pena said...


Armando dela Cruz said...


I went online and read reviews of this. Damn they're sugarcoating everything. Such PROFESSIONAL--and by professional; mean, they're business-minded...and they're effing earning--writers. and! C'mon, live up to your reputations! Appreciate your honesty Cathy. I'm the guy from FilmPolice if you wish to know. :)))

--A. (P.S. just linked my Google+ to my blogger, that's all.)

Cathy Pena said...

@ Armand:

You're Armand pala! I really don't pay much heed to others' reviews. I take them with a grain of salt unless they're so blatantly off tangent, but it won't stop me from writing my thoughts, di ba? After all, we all have our tastes and preferences.

Here's one thing sure about this film - it is pretentious and painfully slow!

Go watch it - I find that trailers aren't really representative of the quality of the completed product.

Anonymous said...

plus, I just can't with the pop love song scenes in the third part of the film.

-j. laxamana

Cathy Pena said...

@ jason:

Hmmm. I actually liked the melody of the song, not the "diction" of the singer. :) The 2nd half felt like a different story altogether!