Seklusyon

Erik Matti’s Seklusyon won Best Screenplay, Best Director and a bunch of other awards at the 2016 Metro Manila Film Festival. Congratulations! Here’s the trailer because, if you haven’t seen the movie yet, you should, and the trailer is just the thing to get you going.

After the jump, spoilers lurk. Consider yourself warned.

If you’re still here, lezzdothis.

Notables

Seklusyon is notable for a lot of reasons. Technically speaking, for instance, it was remarkably free of the flaws that I’ve come to expect from even MMFF entries. Do you remember that movie about a gangster, where the color grading of 2/3 of the movie totally disappeared for the last 1/3in the space of one jump cut? Yeah. None of that here.

Seclusion was also notable for it’s casting of Rhed Bustamante as the miracle worker Anghela. Not that it was a very demanding role for a kid who cut her teeth on television melodrama, but her performance was the least wooden of the entire cast – yes, the Honorable and venerable Lou Veloso included.

Most importantly, this Erik Matti movie scored beaucoup points for the subversiveness of its plot.  Seklusyon sneakily presents a premise whose logical progression seemed very predictable. Would-be priests are sent away for the last seven days prior to their ordination, in order to protect them from the blandishments of the devil. You might presume that, while in seclusion, these deacons will be tempted and tested to their breaking point at which point they will either lose the fight or, like Jesus did in the wilderness, kick the devil’s ass.

But then you’d be wrong. In a clever reversal, this movie posits that the devil won’t want these deacons to fail. Instead, the Adversary will – like an enemy spymaster – do its best to turn the deacons into double-agents. To my mind, this is a more realistic spiritual warfare plan that has the added benefit of (hang on. Is this another twist?) explaining why we have priests who are secretly sexually abusive, sociopathic, and pedophiliac.

Clearly, the movie’s premise can be mined for a great number of twists on the traditional Temptation of Jesus theme, and Seklusyon did a fair job of exploring that aspect of it, making it a good foray into the psychological and even meta-physical realms.

Scripting Problems

As the scary movie it was supposed to be, however, Seklusyon was hobbled by a clunky script that did not adequately build up suspense or provide horror from the otherwise good premise and plot, a very palpable lack of character development all around, and the aforementioned wooden acting by almost everyone in the main cast.

The moody camerawork did a good job of showcasing the visual aspects of the movie. Just watching the thing, you knew it was supposed to unnerve you. Even that clumsy p-o-v flip kinda worked as a method of foreshadowing horrible things to come. Beyond the occasionally arresting visuals, however, the story-telling didn’t move forward as fluidly as it could have, and sadly, it didn’t deliver the horror.

According to Karina Wilson, an LA-based screenwriter, a good script is “elegant, simple, rhythmic, adhere to a specific structure, and nail a problem/solution within the requisite number of lines.”  Unfortunately, Seklusyon’s was not any of these things. Not counting the eerie otherworldliness the main baddie was supposed to project, all the other dialogue ranged from stilted – the opening confessional scene, for instance – to anachronistic – the sexually charged confrontation between two characters comes to mind – to betraying a seeming lack of understanding of the dynamics between the characters’ real life counterparts.

Thus, throughout the movie, you get the sense that the characters were not really inhabiting real people, but cut-outs intended solely for the purpose of delivering the appropriate line to move the plot along. And because the story wasn’t being told through the characters – i.e., the story wasn’t unfolding because of who the characters were and what their motivations might be – the script also tended to be too expository. Instead of having the interactions between the characters reveal important plot points, the character often resorted to just explaining themselves. And it’s kinda difficult getting scared when you’re paying close attention to the stream of details you’re being told.

Another consequence of the thin script – and perhaps even drawing more attention to that deficiency – was the gimmicky use of on-screen text.

On-screen text – specifically this kind of dynamic typography – is all the rage now, having been used to great effect in, say, BBC’s Sherlock Holmes. The 50 Shades of Grey movie tried it too (but the less said about that movie, the better). Here, though, on-screen text was too often used as a crutch to help the story stay on its feet; a kind of deus ex machina, if you will. Don’t know why she acts that way? Don’t worry! We have efx that’ll explain all of that! Some of those effects were pretty enough, I’ll grant you that, but they were too distracting for any significant suspension of disbelief.

Poor Character Building

One of the worst things a movie can do, in my opinion, is to make individual characters sort of indistinguishable from each other. And that’s exactly what happened with the four deacons in seclusion in this movie. Unless you’re paying attention to the physical differences – although they all sort of look alike as well – it’s not easy to remember which psychological hang-up goes where.

Is that the guy who loves his pan de sal? Nah, man. That’s the guy into… wait, um…?

And don’t even get me started on the priest in charge of the seclusion. Look, if you’re charged with keeping distractible  young men in check for seven days, presumably for years and years, you’re naturally gonna adopt a curmudgeonly exterior. You’re gonna be gruff and you’re most likely going to take some pleasure in scaring your wards when they first come under your wing. Lou Veloso did that very well. Unfortunately, we are TOLD later on, that his demeanour is actually rooted in something else. Worse, his motivation – which, by the way, was apparently not important enough to give more detail to in the first place – turns out to be a critical plot point! That’s not a surprise twist; that’s a way-too-convenient deus ex resulting from poor character development.

To a much more egregious extent, we are hit over the head with the main character’s piousness – the fellow takes half a pan de sal while others take the whole thing – which is in no way ever connected to his psychological baggage. Seriously. That whole piousness business – while it didn’t exactly detract from the character – didn’t add anything to our understanding of the character’s motivations, leaving us with no way to either sympathise with him or excoriate him when his big reveal finally comes.

Hams. Hams everywhere.

Which is probably a mercy considering how Christmass-y the acting was: it was all ham. Ham and cheesy delivery where the actors stopped at all the weirdest places mid-sentence.

The camera loved it’s actors, lingering on their features and their posturing whenever possible. The actors – particularly the lead deacon – seemed frozen into one look: the sophomoric angas-stare- into-the-camera, shoulders down, with a sinewy sway from side-to-side look favoured by every kanto boy toughie you can remember. I kid you not. And as a deacon, supposedly seven days away from becoming ordained, there was absolutely no situation, no circumstance, no context in which this stance was justified. Sino inaastahan nya? Si Lou Veloso?

About the only people who showed any sort of emotional depth on their faces were the ridiculously hot Sister Cecilia and Anghela – and in the nun’s case, only in the bathtub (Yeah. I’m not gonna spoil that).

In Seclusion … no, Conclusion

Seklusyon was a good effort, but it wasn’t perfect.

All told, the movie represented a massive surge forward in terms of technical quality. It was well shot, fairly edited, and the sound work was great too. The scoring was unobtrusive and was actually used to heighten dramatic effect at key points in the movie. So, kudos for all that (although I think it should be billed as a psychological thriller, rather than as a horror movie),

But see that’s the problem I’ve been pointing out with every single MMFF. Producing sleek looking and sounding movies is a good goal, but it shouldn’t be the end all and be all of commercial moviemaking; story-telling should be the thing! I mean, it’d be good if the happy union of sleekness and story-telling could be achieved in a movie – Guardians of the Galaxy comes to mind – but I would sooner appreciate a cracking good tale well told, better than I would technical perfection, as best exemplified by the Wrath of Khan versus Star Trek Into Darkness.

On a final (and hopefully unnecessary) note, pointing out the imperfections of Seklusyon should not be considered an attack on the movie, nor an unfair comparison to western moviemaking standards. Storytelling doesn’t care about east and west; developed or developing; studio or independent. Storytelling is about connecting to the audience and its imperatives are about as universal as anything can be.

 

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