VIOLATOR, a thoroughly creepy and craftily executed low budget film coming to us from the Philippines, could belong to a gradually growing group of films that mix elements of crime suspense and the occult. It’s an affecting combination, taken on as far back as The First Power, and going on to include the likes of Seven (at least in its early act) and Kurosawa Kiyoshi’s Kyua (Cure). In the context of such reality-based proceedings between cops and robbers, the eeriness of the supernatural feels like it has that much more potential to bleed into the real world, and thus hits a lot closer to home.
The main plot is a simple and not unfamiliar one: A group of cops, under the lead of an out of shape and near retirement chief, cross ethical boundaries under shaky notion of justice, and are brought to face the error of their ways in their encounter with an inscrutable and possibly possessed young man who lands all too conveniently in their custody. All the while, a catastrophic storm rages outside the police station they are holed up in, leaving them nothing to do but confront their aggression toward one another as well as some toxic inner demons, prodded on by the stranger in their midst. While this commonly tread does not make this a stand out film, the singular way in which the story is told and other atmospheric effects absolutely does.
New director, Dodo Dayao, who presents Violator as only his first feature, has a knack for drawing on his surroundings to set a grim mood. In one of the film’s initial scenes, a Manila skyline of gray, crumbling buildings is awe-inspiring even as it evokes a strong sense of melancholy. The rainstorm holding the cops in place is rendered in such a way it feels all encompassing.
The film may come off as a bit more of an exercise in creating terror than a fully flushed out vision, as a lot of pieces are presented without ostensibly fitting them together. That is not to say ideas are not clear in Dayao‘s mind, but their presentation is esoteric to say the least.
Still, letting the ideas simmer can lead to the extraction of some heady takeaways. For instance, the cops being sequestered in headquarters atop a hill from which they are safe from damage, but unable to escape to a better place seems representative of their being trapped within a construct of their own mortal devising.
The confrontation between the antagonizing figure and the chief is also a curious one, in which the established authority figure is faced not with the morality of his ways, as would be expected, but also the shortsightedness of them, as if his lack of achievement is as damning a thing as any wrongdoing.
Along the way, there is a clear preoccupation with cults, and a culture embedded with a pervasive belief in the spirit world. Even as the captain casts skepticism on the notion of something supernatural afflicting their prisoner, they are clearly open to the possibility.
Even if the message is not always clear, Dayao‘s adeptness at creating foreboding chills is. From the maniacal characteristics of the film’s main agitator to freaky found footage scenes of cult activity with an arresting shift in sound quality, he holds an obvious dedication to pushing the conventional boundaries of his craft. And then there joyful moments of sheer cinematic transgression to behold: As one part of the viewer’s brain works on teasing out possible themes, another is simply torn wide open by scenes like one in which disciples of an unrevealed master, scurry across a mountainous landscape, their bodies engulfed in flames. From the oddly placed credits to the strange narrative jumps, there is so much here suggestive of a filmmaker who wants to challenge his audience, or at least put a fresh coat of paint on a too often mundane genre.
This is exactly the sort of obscure international filmmaking that the New York Asian Film Festival has persisted in exhuming for the adventurous New York City filmgoers’ yearly ritual worship, even as it has risen from the humble grounds of the West Village’s IFC Theater to its now esteemed home of Lincoln Center, and in this its 14th year its added base of the SVA Theater in Chelsea.
VIOLATOR will be screened at theWalter Reade Theater on Wednesday, July 8. Visit the Subway Cinema website for details and tickets.