“Area,” the new film by Louie Ignacio attacks the subject of prostitution on a systemic perspective, via the parallelism of the multi-generational family which operates a brothel, and the dysfunctional relationship among the sex workers living under one roof.
Of course, prostitution has always been an offshoot of poverty, yet “Area” narrowly but cleverly avoids the route of poverty porn through the use of humor. Despite the depressing condition of its characters, “Area” finds the silver lining in the mundane. The sex workers are allowed to laugh at their misfortunes through sarcasm and irony, providing them a momentary escape from reality.
Much of why the film excels as a poignant realist drama is due to Robby Tantingco’s solidly-written script, working from a story by Ferdinand Lapuz. The characters are all distinct from one another, and each of their personal journeys are exciting to follow.
Ai-Ai delas Alas, acting in her second indie film plays Hillary, a veteran sex worker who is saving money to find her long-lost son in the U.S. As Hillary, delas Alas renders a quiet and controlled performance reminiscent of her also laudable turn in Nick Olanka’s “Ronda.” As a woman who has very little hope left, delas Alas manifests bleakness through her empty eyes. In one bittersweet scene, a customer pays for sex in the form of cans of sardines, and delas Alas’ facial resignation is spot on.
On the younger front, Ireen Villamor and Sue Prado portray Belen and Julie, one the youngest of the bunch, who is allowed to make reckless decisions, and the latter a single mother of three children facing the aftermath of her own reckless decisions. Both actresses shine in their respective rights, expertly channeling the angst and the pessimism common with women who have been in the flesh trade long enough. Prado, most notably, approaches her lines with deadpan humor, and her Julie is arguably her most enjoyable onscreen role in recent memory.
Sarah Pagcaliwagan-Brakensiek meanwhile plays Taba, another sex worker aptly nicknamed because of her weight. Coupled with Tabs Sumulong, who plays Glo, the eldest of the gang, the two provide a lot of the film’s hilarious moments, as well as a serving or two of bitter truths on the side.
Veteran actor Allen Dizon is also compelling as Ben, the brothel operator, as well as Sancho delas Alas, who despite being a newbie is able to carry his own as Ben’s right-hand man.
Area, also known as the poor man’s red light district in Pampanga seeps with so much history, and the film manages to spin an affecting yarn that humanizes its inhabitants. “Area” refuses judgment against its characters, amid the maze of vice and sin. Instead, the narrative allows us to live and breathe the squalor, inhale all the sweat, and consume each and every little story hiding behind every dark corner.
It helped that the filmmakers decided to shoot the film in the actual “Area,” along with the casting of Kapampangan actors, who were also scene-stealers in their own right. Eufrucina Peña and Cecille Yumul, last seen in Carlo Catu’s award-winning homage to Kapampangan poetry and culture “ARI: My Life with a King” (also written by Robby Tantingco), herein play mother and daughter, while Frank Guinto, the titular “ARI” from the same film portrays an aging regular customer of Hillary.
True to the play of contrasts and irony, the film contains religious references such as self-flagellation, a common practice in Pampanga among Catholic devotees as an act of penance. Both Ben and Hillary, among other characters seek atonement for sins that seem never-ending. Even a staged crucifixion is platform for sarcasm.
What I liked best about “Area,” among the many surprises it offers, is its unflinching optimism. More often than not, potentially remarkable films are killed by the ending, either by indecision or by cutting too long. “Area” closes perfectly. Prepare a hanky.