A cash-strapped woman sells a kidney to improve her lot in “Donor,” a gritty urban drama distinguished by Meryll Soriano’s terrific lead perf and scripter-helmer Mark Meily’s sharp dissection of the social realities and bureaucratic obstacles confronting his determined heroine. Sprinkled with well-aimed volleys of black humor, pic is prime fest material and deserves airing on specialized tube outlets. Local release details are pending.
Following the costume-drama misfire “Baler,” Meily’s fourth feature reps his best work since his debut, “Crying Ladies,” a femme-focused comic meller that was the Philippines’ 2005 foreign-language Oscar entry. Like that film, “Donor” eschews the high-pitched emotions commonly found in Filipino cinema, and is accessible to Western auds.
Thirty-ish Lizette (Soriano) is barely able to make ends meet selling pirate DVDs at a Manila market. Things are no better at home, with unemployed deadbeat b.f. Danny (Baron Geisler) drinking most of Lizette’s wages and badgering her to buy him a gun with money she doesn’t have. Far from being the downtrodden female victim frequently seen in poverty-themed Filipino indies, Lizette gives Danny plenty of criticism for his laziness and obsession with firearms, much of it grimly humorous.
Losing her job after a raid by copyright cops, Lizette plans to leave Danny and migrate to Dubai, where employment is guaranteed for those willing to pay extortionate “application and processing” fees. Here and elsewhere, Meily’s screenplay is highly critical of rules and regulations that impose heavy financial burdens on those who can least afford them.
An opportunity to raise the cash arrives when Lizette is approached by Angie (Joy Viado), an intermediary for foreigners seeking organ transplants in privately run Filipino clinics. Without much hesitation, Lizette accepts an offer of 100,000 pesos ($2,300) in return for one of her kidneys. Recipient is Massoud (Tabatabaee Kami), a Jordanian businessman Lizette must first marry to comply with laws preventing Filipinos donating organs to foreigners.
Sequence showing the sham wedding is beautifully handled; at a hastily arranged reception, the couple exchange smiles that say everything about the massive gulf in their respective circumstances, which allow him to stay alive and keep her financially solvent, at least for now.
Meily’s deliberately low-key direction produces high-impact results as Lizette’s bundle of bank notes is gradually eroded, and a cruel twist emerges in her Dubai escape plan. But even in her darkest moments, including a finale few auds will forget in a hurry, a cautious optimism emerges. Great credit is due Soriano, whose subtly shows Lizette as pragmatic about her survival options, but never resigned or defeated.
Smoothly shot on HD by lenser Jay Abello, “Donor” has the production values and technical quality of a pic several times its modest budget.