Most of the contemporary cinema that European audiences get to consume from the Philippines come from visionary (and festival favoured) directors such as Lav Diaz or Raya Martin. The former’s From What Is Before (2014) is not the only film from the country to feature in the programme of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, however. Also present is Joel Lamangan’s urban crime drama Justice (Hustisya, 2014) but sadly, despite providing an interesting snapshot of contemporary Manilla, it’s a patchy affair at best and completely unravels in its disastrous third act. As such, Justice also fails to make much of a case for a wider array of Filipino cinema to be given opportunities on international screens.
If you’ve ever wondered what a low-budget Filipino spin on Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) with a middle-aged servant taking on the role of Michael Corleone might be like, then you need wonder no more. Biring (Nora Aunor) is the personal assistant to her childhood best friend, Vivian (Rosanna Roces), who is now the head of a successful people trafficking operation. When emotion gets the better of her after a betrayal, Vivian kills her former lover and chooses the loyal and unsuspecting Biring as her patsy. Somehow, Biring must navigate time behind bars, vested interests of local officials, and learn who set her up in order to exact revenge. The potential is there for Lamangan’s to craft a really noteworthy thriller, casting an alternative light on the society so damned by his much-lauded compatriot, Lav Diaz.
The malignancy of governmental corruption stalks the story, whilst Biring is set up as staunch opposition to the apathy of the general populace, and the hypocrisy of the state religion. Instead she prays to the city, Manilla, a bustling, sprawling, deafening giant – Justice’s greatest success is in forming a palpable sense of location. The problem is that all of these fascinating elements are just backdrop for the uneven and implausible plot. Once Biring is in lock-down, things take a turn for the strange with the introduction of the dapper Attorney (Rocco Nacino) who is charged with securing her freedom, and the cartoonish Butchie (Mailes Kanapi) the alpha female of the bizarre cell block. As Biring’s quest for retribution continues, and begins to coincide with a unlikely rise through the Manilla underworld, events become increasingly ungrounded – undermining any karmic sense of balance being restored. To cap it all off, Justice’s final scene attempts to cross the nuance of Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003) with the wicked conclusion to Michael Jackson’s Thriller video – to completely dumbfounding effect. It’s an aptly unconvincing ending to a film that’s unfortunately difficult to recommend.