The Wheel and Axle

MMFF 2016: Not To Kill, But To Win (Seklusyon)

by on Dec.26, 2016, under Film & TV

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Metro Manila Film Festival 2016: Some Spoilers!

Erik Matti has not failed me so far in the last few years: 2012’s Tiktik: The Aswang Chronicles and its MMFF 2014 sequel Kubot, 2013’s On The Job, and last year’s controversial MMFF entry Honor Thy Father. All highly-praised, all acclaimed, all fantastic.

He does not fail me this year with his MMFF entry, the horror film Seklusyon.

I confess to having fears that this movie would be formula Pinoy horror – you know, where some mysterious theme (weddings, bagwas, faith healing, SMS, etc.) starts killing off cast members one by one, usually in increasingly gruesome and creative ways. Here in Seklusyon, after all, we have an array of would-be priests ripe for the picking.

I’m glad I was wrong, and I shall never doubt Matti again.

There is nothing “horror-typical” about this movie, even though religious themes have been explored in horror before. This is a movie more akin to classic horror films – both old and more recent – that rely not on jump scares (though there are a couple) but on creating atmosphere and building tension. It is the horror that festers in your mind long after the movie is done.

The year is 1947, and four deacons about to be ordained as priests enter an isolated retreat house to undergo “seclusion,” as was supposedly customary back then, in order to avoid temptations from the devil. The belief is that temptation is strongest when a man is about to finally make that final step, and seclusion helps deflect such seduction from evil. The four young men are still very much human, however, and all of them are heavily-burdened with their own secret guilts and sins that are ripe for exploitation.

Somewhere else, a little girl with miraculous powers uses her gifts – with the guidance of a nun – to help heal the sick in the name of God, thereby spurring the Catholic Church to launch an investigation and determine her authenticity through a skeptical priest. As the little girl Anghela becomes orphaned, she finds herself crossing the paths of the four deacons as she is sent to their location for her own safety.

Or so it seems.

As with Matti’s best works, much of the film takes on the form of social commentary, intended or not. It tackles a number of things: religion as an opiate for the masses (and even for its own leaders), lies and half-truths used to corrupt the truth to make one indistinguishable from the other, guilt and sin as elements to drown in or as experiences to learn from, temptation as a vessel of unacceptable realities, the dangers of cultish figures that prey upon weakness, the human choice of doing what is easy versus doing what is right.

Seklusyon is a very layered movie that not only give you chills. It makes you think, as good horror movies are supposed to do.

If you are expecting a gorefest with lots of blood and death, you will not really find it here. There are a couple of gore and blood scenes, but over-all the film is subdued and nuanced – but no less frightening. In fact, it is significantly more frightening, for it relies on that adage, “Less is more.” What you do not see is scarier than what you do see. Combined with Matti’s excellent sepia-toned visuals and amazing cinematography, the final product provides a true horror experience that lingers in your mind’s eye.

Despite a somewhat rushed climax and resolution, the movie does bring the story to a close to full satisfaction. It also does with a comparatively low body count compared to others of the genre – but really, that is the point. In most other movies, evil seems to be all about killing every last one of the protagonists, but reality is more complex than that. There is purpose to the actions of the antagonist here, purpose that makes more sense in the context of the real world, the purpose to corrupt.

True evil does not simply want to kill.

It wants to win.

And in the end, it does.

That is what makes the film truly scary, especially when one reflects upon the implications of that final scene.

It gives you pause, knowing that evil is not outside but within.

Rhed Bustamante (Anghela) is quite a find. A little girl of such acting capability is pretty rare nowadays, and in the spirit of Damien, she is an effective herald of evil. She is both affecting and frightening, and with just a subtle glance here, a tiny smile there, she embodies and owns this movie. I hear they’re pushing her to be nominated for Best Actress against Nora Aunor and Eugene Domingo. Ballsy move, but not unwarranted nor undeserving.

Ronnie Alonte (Miguel) is a newcomer as well, and as the primary protagonist alongside Neil Ryan Sese’s skeptical priest, he manages to be a surprisingly strong and believable lead. Ronnie occasionally risks falling into melodrama, but he is held back just at the right moments through superb direction, and over-all, he does well for someone new. Neil, on the other hand, is a veteran and continues to showcase what makes him a veteran – acting versatility that makes you see the character and not the actor.

Most of the rest of the primary cast are either relatively new (John Vic De Guzman, JR Versales, Phoebe Walker, Elora Españo) or rising (the always watchable Dominic Roque, of whom I’ve been a fan of for a few years now). This helps make the movie work so much better, for it really helps one to focus on the gripping storyline, but being lesser known does not diminish their performance. Dominic and Phoebe, in particular, provide solid support, and the latter probably deserves the Best Supporting Actress just by virtue of how she can do so much with minimal dialogue. Those scary horror nuns we hear in ghost stories? Yeah, that’s her.

Of course, Lou Veloso – who is in a short but rather pivotal role – is a distinguished veteran, and as always, he delivers.

All in all, Seklusyon brings pure horror back to the table of the MMFF in a great way, and Erik Matti needs to continue having an entry every year. The man is pure genius.

And do yourself a favor: watch (or re-watch) Seklusyon.

My Rating: 9 out of 10 Stars

Starring: Rhed Bustamante, Ronnie Alonte, Neil Ryan Sese, Lou Veloso, Dominic Roque, Phoebe Walker, John Vic De Guzman, JR Versales, Elora Españo

Directed By: Erik Matti

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