Thursday, August 21, 2014

Macabro ’14: Sapi

Which is more dangerous: torrential monsoons, demonic possession, or the tabloid media? All three are coalescing into a perfect storm in Metro Manila. As reports of spiritual possession sweep the city, two rival networks will race to bottom trying to scoop each other. The story takes on personal dimensions for one particular news crew in Brillante Ma Mendoza’s Sapi (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Macabro, the Mexico City International Film Festival.

It is a Catholic country, so they take demonic doings quite seriously. It is also a ratings driver. SBN even has a show dedicated to it: Sapi, meaning possession. Unfortunately, PBC has been eating their lunch. The case of a school teacher named Ruby is a perfect example. By the time reporter Dennis Marquez got there with his producer Meryl Flores, PBC had already caught all the juicy Linda Blair action, so they had to settle for a bland sit-down with the apparently exorcized woman.

In a Mary Mapes level breach of journalistic ethics, Flores strikes a deal with Baron Valdez, their freelance cameraman, to smuggle some of the good footage out of PBC. However, when their pilfered video runs on SBN, they neglected to pixelate Ruby’s face. Suddenly, a lot of people are unhappy with Flores and her team, perhaps including a supernatural agency. In fact, ever since they left Ruby, the three tabloid journalists have been plagued by disturbing dreams and gory visions.

Sapi is a strange genre hybrid that probably spends more time on the dodgy side of journalism than the business of supernatural horror. Thankfully, Mendoza does not go the found footage route, but the film clearly has a deliberately handheld video-on-the-fly look just the same. Yet, since Sapi is so grounded, when Mendoza springs a paranormal jolt, it is really freaky.

Unfortunately, in addition to being morally challenged, the SBN journalists are also kind of dull. Rather, it is the supporting veteran character actors who really add color and flavor to the proceedings, such as Jon Achaval and Raquel N. Villavicencio as the bickering news director and station chief.

Nonetheless, Mendoza uses the city to full noir effect. He captures a vivid sense of its chaos and grittiness, without wallowing in poverty porn. It is even more ragged around the edges than he intended, with many of the pieces rather haphazardly forced together, but his mastery of mood and tone is impressive. Throughout Sapi there is a persistently unnerving sensation something sinister lurks just outside our field of vision and the notion of bottom-feeding journalists exploiting demonic possession feels all too here-and-now. Recommended for those who prefer a healthy dose of social commentary with their horror films, Sapi screens this Saturday (8/23) and the following Friday (8/29), as part of this year’s Macabro.