The casualties of being guilty before proven innocent come across loud and clear in “Dark Is the Night,” veteran independent filmmaker Adolfo Alix Jr.’s condemnation of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs. Initially predictable, showing nothing that the news hasn’t already reported, the film gains credibility as it demonstrates how drugs permeate ordinary lives in the Philippines, and hence cannot be eradicated by some quick fix. Nevertheless, seen alongside the heady experimentalism of younger compatriots, such as the politically charged hip-hop musical “Respeto,” Alix’s direction looks stuck in the dreary realism of Filipino slum movies in vogue a decade ago. Nevertheless, given its topical subject, the film should enjoy small-scale distribution in Europe via French art-house co-producer Swift Prods.
Last year, Brilliante Mendoza’s Cannes entry “Ma’ Rosa” exposed his country’s drug problem by showing how “ice” or crystal meth can be bought at mom-and-pop stores, and how police bully small pushers for payoffs. Things have gotten a lot worse in the city as the film opens with a family dinner interrupted by a police shootout in the streets, resulting in the deaths of many branded as drug pushers, with incriminating placards laid over their bodies in place of wreaths.
Sara (Gina Alajar), the matriarch of the family in the first scene, is trying to come clean in the wake of extrajudicial killings that have claimed at least 7,000 lives. The first ones upset are the cops, because — surprise, surprise — they’re feeding from the hands of the local don (or rather, donna) Kidlat (Laurice Guillen). Losing the hood’s “protection” plunges Sara into greater danger, making her free game for the police to fill their quotas.
Amid radios blasting the Manila police chief’s edict of a blacklist of user-pushers circulating around certain precincts, and his abominable claim that he “won’t wait” till citizens have committed a crime to kill them, Sara’s client-friends warn her that she’s on the list, because now that she wants out, the mob wants to stop her from squealing. However, what concerns her more is the disappearance of Alan (Felix Roco), her womanizing pothead son.
The better part of the film sees Sara and her husband (Phillip Salvador) scour the barrio looking for Alan. Albert Banzon’s monotonous cinematography recalls a slew of Filipino indie films that stalk protagonists with a shaky handheld camera through dusty alleys in crowded slums. Her familiar movement amplifies the generic nature of Sara the sturdy mother figure who’d do anything to fend for her brood — a persona as ubiquitous in Philippine cinema as moles in Hong Kong thrillers. And though violence erupts everywhere, Alix’s editing doesn’t ratchet up enough tension.
Still, the story draws viewers in by laying out an intricate web of crime that holds Philippine society in a tight grip. Practically everyone in the story works for Kidlat and every household is linked to the next in the supply chain. Alix keeps testing audiences’ moral baselines, first by downplaying drug-dealing as a supplement to the characters’ meager incomes, then by subtly hinting at their histories of violence. More shades of gray in the director’s screenplay emerge as one sees Sara interact with her clique of female friends (mostly sex workers). On one hand, their mutual support seems genuine, on the other, every character is ruthless in a matter-of-fact way, leading to some chilling plot turns.
Less subtlety is reserved for the portrayal of police venality, symbolized by a sargeant (Bembol Roco) who openly acts as the petty pushers’ supplier. In additon to the usual scenes of brutality suffered by those in detention (“this is our own purgatory,” says the officer), there’s also a subplot about how the cops extort money from richer citizens (in this case those of Chinese or Japanese descent) by framing them for drug possession. It takes some guts to depict the current state of crisis without skirting around issues of state ineptitude and corruption. However, the sketchy characterization of key roles, especially Alan’s, weakens the emotional punch of the inevitable end game.
Actress-TV-director Alajar delivers a plausibly down-to-earth performance, while cameos by a well-known cast, such as Angeli Bayani (“Ilo Ilo”), Cherry Pie Picache and Angel Aquino collectively convey a tough female presence, even though the roles themselves are not very meaty. Tech credits are run-of-the-mill.