After recreating the 2001 Dos Palmas kidnapping incident by Islamic separatists in “Captive” (2012), Filipo auteur Brillante Mendoza’s “Ma’ Rosa” is an equally political hostage drama in which small-time drug-sellers are detained by police extorting a payout. As an indictment of the ubiquity of the country’s corruption and the banality of evil, it’s neither as harrowing as his own “Kinatay” nor as stylish as compatriot Erik Matti’s noir crime thrillers. Still, as in most of the director’s repertoire, he portrays working class family relations with unpretentious warmth. Boasting a simple, coherent plot shot with real-time, handheld verismo, it’s a work of understated confidence that will not disappoint his festival acolytes, but probably won’t win many new converts.
Crafted with input from screenwriting guru Armando “Bing” Lao (who collaborated with Mendoza on “Serbis” and “Kinatay”), the structure of Troy Espiritu’s script harks back to the hyper-realism of “Slingshot,” the director’s last film to portray the sprawling urban slum of Metro Manila. A decade after that feature was made, his latest outing still adheres to Lao’s theories of setting a story in a unified location, within a time frame not exceeding a few days. Encompassing torrential rain in real locations that often look underexposed in natural light, with sporadically blurry cinematography, the deliberately grubby aesthetics appear more vintage than edgy, especially when a young generation of Filipino directors (many inspired by Mendoza) have branched out to a wider range of subjects, styles and locations.
When portraying poverty, Mendoza gets down to the nitty-gritty as the eponymous heroine Rosa Reyes (Jaclyn Jose) first appears counting every penny at the supermarket where she buys goods to resell at the sari-sari store she runs in a Mandaluyong shantytown, east of Manila. Anything that would earn a few extra pesos would be readily embraced by the Reyes. Thus, peddling ice (a form of crystal meth) in small quantities is a way of supplementing their income, no different from renting out their beloved karaoke set to the neighbors to have a sing-along. Nor does Rosa raise an eyebrow at the casual drug-taking of husband Nestor (Julio Diaz). Haggling seems to be second nature to all the characters, and part and parcel of a life that must be fought ceaselessly to be preserved.
On the eve of Nestor’s birthday, the cops raid Rosa’s tiny convenience store, easily finding evidence to arrest the couple. As soon as they arrive at the station, they’re taken through a side entrance into a back room. Instead of following standard protocol, Officer Lopez (Baron Geisler) and his underlings threaten to jail Rosa and her husband unless they pay a private settlement of 200,000 pesos. Their prolonged negotiations are conducted in a businesslike way that makes the police’s bloodsucking greed all the more sickening. When the couple can’t pay up, they are asked to turn over their supplier, Jomar (Kristoffer King), so the police can bust — and extort — him as well.
Whereas “Kinatay” raised the police’s abuse of power to a nauseating level of on-screen violence, here it’s built up more skillfully, allowing their genial masks finally to peel away and reveal ruthless thuggery. However, while capturing the awkwardness of the Reyeses being tucked away in an adjoining room while Jomar is being blackmailed, Mendoza neither explores their moral turmoil nor imbues the situation with enough tension.
The film takes a more engaging turn when the Reyeses’ three children Jackson (Felix Roco), Erwin (Jomari Angeles) and Raquel (Andy Eigenmann) are tasked with raising the money to bail out their parents. That there’s been no outward show of affection among any of the family members makes their instant assumption of duty surprisingly touching. While Jackson and Erwin look like mama’s boys at first, they prove more enterprising and resourceful than expected, lifting the mood out of total bleakness.
TV veteran Jose, reunited with Diaz after “Slingshot,”embodies the careworn yet resilient matriarch with naturalistic grace, but she exudes less charisma than Mendoza’s other female leads, notably Nora Aunor (“Taklub”), Maria Isabel Lopez (“Kinatay”) or Mercedes Cabral (“Serbis”). Incidentally, Lopez and Cabral have small roles that add a sizzle to the low-humming rhythm. Diaz, who’s appeared in four of Mendoza’s films (but is now hospitalized for a brain aneurysm), is Jose’s effective foil as the lax loafer who lets his wife wear the pants. While the three young actors’ performances could be faulted for bordering on expressionless, it could be argued that the approach best conveys the children’s silent stoicism.