Normally viewers would not look forward to a zero-budget, DV-shot Filipino movie about yet another Asian hit man that was filmed entirely from the hero’s p.o.v. using a hand-held camera and with frequent out-of-focus images to simulate poor vision. Yet Jon Red’s tremendously exciting “ASTIGmatism,” a film made up of “bad” ideas so well planned and executed that it emerges as “good” moviemaking, grabs the viewer’s attention from the first shot and never lets go. Winner of Hong Kong’s Silver DV Award, pic’s obvious mastery may trump its overt sleaziness at fests, but aesthetic could prove too poverty-row for cable.
The subjective moving camera generates a constant sense of disorientation, as the protagonist, Bien (Filipino action star Robin Padilla), tracks his prey through tenement apartments that are rabbit warrens of interconnecting rooms. His persistent dodging and weaving even echo in his dreams.
“ASTIGmatism” is reality reduced to what happens between the blinkings of Bien’s eyes, but that reality is insufficient, never providing enough information in the frame. Yet unlike “Memento,” that other recent indie exploration of “limited consciousness” subjectivity, the fetid, dingy cycles of Bien’s brutish existence hold no mystery, unless it is simply the uncertainty of survival.
During one hit, Bien is making his cautious, darting, gun-pointing way through a maze of rooms when he hears a gunshot. Finding a young man who has just blown his brains out in the bathroom, Bien’s glance skitters across the room, only coming to rest when he spots the suicide weapon.
There is a feeling of claustrophobia, of being trapped within a recurring nightmare. Bulk of pic takes place inside ratty derelict buildings where paranoia is a way of life as gang members appear on each other’s hit lists.
Pic opens in the middle of a conversation between Bien and two trussed-up about-to-be-ex-colleagues, as Bien feverishly boasts about being in control. As Bien anxiously paces, one of the guys makes a break for it: The camera and gun whirl around, sight the escapee, and shoot.
Nervously hovering over the body, trying to decide whether it needs another bullet, Bien returns to dispatch the other, more passive target. In Bien’s subsequent nightmare, the man on the floor rises up to shoot him back.
Helmer Red has a knack for casual realism — the whole motley crew passing through Bien’s purview are fully fleshed-out characters with their own peculiar tics and offhand personalities. Bien’s fat, friendly and incompetent sidekick tutors him in making funny faces in the car as they wait for their mark. Minutes later, the sidekick’s stumbling ineptitude comes to the rescue as he falls noisily giving Bien, whose gun was taken by their target, time to stick a fork in the guy.
Red also is able to shift in and out of philosophical overdrive for ironic effect. Thus Bien, in voiceover, quotes Boss Gerry’s succinct view of life as a road, only to cut to the boss himself, ranting incoherently about potholes and road hogs.
Even the “gimmick” of astigmatism never reads as forced or cutesy, functioning both as titular pun on the Tagalog word “astig” (thug), and as a form of visual impoverishment.
Not only was Red able to hire major B.O. draw Robin Padilla for a role where he appears on camera for under a minute (via mirror shots, a la Robert Montgomery in “Lady in the Lake”), but also prevailed on him to act as his own camera operator. The resultant contrast between the stringent camera and the loosely improvisational feel of the intercepted action creates a unique, dream-like tension.
Tech credits are suitably grungy.