MANILA -- Nash Bautista used to be a teacher at UP, until she decided to join the New People's Army in the mountains of Mindanao, code-named Commander Lai.
Lt. Raiza Umali was an honest and dedicated officer of the Philippine Army who was assigned to lead the mission against Commander Lai's group.
When Lai and Raiza finally came face to face after their encounter, everyone was stunned that the two women looked exactly like each other.
This new film, "Kaaway sa Sulod," one of only three Filipino films in the running for awards for the Asian New Wave section of QCinema 2019, was written and directed by Arnel Barbarona. He was multi-awarded for his last film, the harrowing "Tu Pug Imatuy" (2017), which dealt with the conflict between the military against the Lumad (or indigenous people). "Kaaway sa Sulod" dealt with the conflict between the military and the NPA.
This was not a particularly easy film to sit through. The script was full of old motherhood statements we have heard before, told in unnaturally long dry soliloquies. The picture quality was not polished, with dim inconsistent lighting. A lot of the action happened in darkness so it was not easy to distinguish one character from another. The sound quality was likewise uneven, especially during the fight scenes. There was even an actual accident where it looked like a stuntman fell flat on his back from a hole in the ceiling and had the wind knocked out of him, which was kept in the final print.
Dionne Monsanto was given a tough job of doing the two lead roles, but perhaps she was not yet ready as an actress for such a challenge. While I commend her daring for those graphic torture scenes, her scream after she read that DNA report was as awkward as her grimace after she ate a sour lansones. Her clothes, hair and make-up as Ka Lai were too distractingly stylish to be convincing to be rebel wear. On the other hand, her Lt. Umali had a constant scowl on her face just to prove she was dead serious about her job.
Perry Dizon played the imperious Gen, Rapatan, a senior military officer with distorted ideas about his rank, who thought torture and extortion were part of his job description. Dax Alejandro played Capt. Nunez, seemingly a good soldier, but still followed Gen. Rapatan orders blindly even if he felt "uncomfortable" with them.
Jeff Sabayle gave a very weak portrayal of Lai's husband Anton, with no visible reaction on his face even as his wife's back was already being torched. Great choice of Nor Heela Macusang to play Lai and Anton's daughter Adlaw as her bright screen presence spelled hope.
Director Barabarona and writer Arnel Mardoquio tackled that age-old conflict of soldiers vs. rebels in the look-alike characters of Lt. Umali and Ka Lai. Whether these two women were indeed twins or merely doppelgangers was left open by the narrative, as there were conflicting DNA results and spurious stories.
I take this as a symbolism of singularity among all Filipinos as a people. The same blood flowed through all Filipinos despite contrasting ideologies. While still harshly critical of the military organization, Barbarona was also making an appeal for national unity.
This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."