Thursday, July 12, 2018

NYAFF ’18: Respeto

At maybe fifteen years-old, aspiring rapper Hendrix is just a kid, but he is already displaying rapper like tendencies. He has no problem with stealing from just about anyone, even though he always seems to get caught. It is a hostile environment to grow up in, especially for a semi-orphan-like Hendrix, but an elderly bookstore will help broaden his perspective in Alberto “Treb” Monteras’s Respeto (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 New York Asian Film Festival.

Hendrix and his pals, the tomboyish Betchai and the Porthos-like Payaso set out to burgle Doc’s store, but they wound up trashing the place instead. In lieu of charges, the three punky kids agree to fix up his store with their own sweat equity. At first, the old man is aloof, but he slowly starts to take a protective interest in the kids, particularly Hendrix.

It turns out Doc was once a well-known poet and critic of the Marcos regime, but he has not written any new verse in years. In fact, he is increasingly alarmed by the parallels between Duterte now and Marcos then, but when he finally speaks out, it will be to give the duplicitous Hendrix a taste of his own medicine at a battle rap showcase (it is tough to watch, but it is far and away the film’s best scene).

Respeto is undeniably gritty, but every heavy-handed punch is telegraphed way in advance. This isn’t so much of a narrative as it is a laundry list of urban pathologies. We have seen this all before and we have seen it better in films like Neomanila and Hamog. Kids are nihilistic, because they are responding to their grim, predatory environment. We so get that, but then what?

Abra might be a popular rapper in the Philippines, but he just doesn’t have the screen presence necessary to carry the film as Hendrix. Instead, it is the old cat, Dido De La Paz, who takes ownership of Respeto as the memory-haunted Doc—and thank goodness he does, or the film would have really been flat.

Clearly, Monteras hoped the film’s immersion into Manila’s hip hop scene would mask its predictable plot and didactic excesses. It works up to a point, but it s tough to shake the feeling that we have been here before, because we have. Simply not distinctive enough to recommend, Respeto screens Saturday evening (7/14) at the SVA Theatre, as part of this year’s NYAFF.