ENGKWENTRO (Pepe Diokno)
ENGKWENTRO comes as a huge surprise. It is a violent, bleak, and unforgiving film and yet it flourishes in beauty; the handheld shots are visceral and they add depth and intensity to what’s happening onscreen.
The story, which is THE most important element, succeeds in delivering a representative documentation of an actual phenomenon in the Philippines, which is the prevalence of state-sponsored vigilante killings. Pepe Diokno’s script, co-written with four others including lead actor Felix Roco and scribe Jerry Gracio (LIGO NA U, LAPIT NA ME) manages to compel because of the human element at the center of the story, which is the strained relationship between siblings Richard (Roco) and Raymond (Daniel Medrana). Set against a backdrop of urban decay, a suppressive legal system that is blind to reason, and real characters that are caught in between, ENGKWENTRO delivers a solid, suspenseful action story within its 60-minutes running time. Within that short span of time, Pepe Diokno, in his debut outing as a director and co-writer was able to get his message across without stopping for breath.
In an unnamed city (yet if you are a Filipino viewer, the city is very much identified), Richard aims to leave for Manila with his girlfriend Jenny-Jane (Eda Nolan). It is of no secret in the slums that he is marked for death by the City Death Squad (CDS), a pressing reason that forces Richard to escape.
The conflict gets worse when his younger brother Raymond gets recruited by a rival gang, Batang Dilim (Child of Darkness) and in a climactic showdown, is forced to execute him through orders of Tomas (Zyrus Desamparado), the rival gang leader.
The film follows Richard’s plight in order to survive the single day that culminates to his departure, up until the unexpected bloody confrontation where he has to finally deal with his younger brother wanting to join the gangs. Divided into a day and night segment, the camera follows the characters’ movements into a seemingly single take complete with all the shakes, uneven angles, and the ensuing nausea relative with a handheld camera. I didn’t feel nauseous though after and even during the film, which I cannot say for like, Gaspar Noe’s IRREVERSIBLE.
Kudos to the cameraman who staged the shots pretty well, and managed to capture the intensity of the scenes, especially during the chase. The uneven angles only heightened the tension and added texture to the film’s visual appeal.
Felix Roco is hauntingly fierce as Richard, a hardened slum dweller that is also a gang member suddenly transformed back to humanity as he tries to avert his brother’s fate of becoming like him. Roco, with his unflinching portrayal of Richard as both a cold-blooded killer and a responsible older brother succeeds in moving the story from simply a flight of survival into a familial reconciliation and back again.
In a voiceover that creeps all throughout the film, Celso Ad Castillo (yes, the filmmaker!) plays the city mayor trying to justify and/or deny vigilante killings. Another filmmaker, Jim Libiran cameos as a motorcycle gunman, whose shadowy and brooding presence renders his brief scene chilling.
In the end, ENGKWENTRO presents a very big moral question that everyone seems to ignore: is violence the only answer to violence? Through texts at the film’s opening and closing, Diokno’s statement about vigilante killings vis a vis street crimes is clearly stated. His visuals are harrowing portraits of his subject matter. For what it’s worth, ENGKWENTRO will surely have you thinking twice about your preconceived notions of crime and punishment.