Tuesday, July 04, 2017

NYAFF ’17: Town in a Lake

How can you have a mystery in a small town, where everyone knows everything about everybody? Those are the sentiments of many Matangtubig residents, who are alarmed and confused by the sensational crime garnering the sleepy burg unwanted national media attention. There are unusually weird things afoot in the surrounding woods, but everyone can relate to the crass and craven behavior of politicians and the media in Jet Leyco’s Town in a Lake (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 New York Asian Film Festival.

Someone knows something, but they are not talking—probably for good reason. On the night in question, teen Nathalie is raped and murdered, while her friend Melody flees into the rainforest and has yet to be seen since. It is a shocking crime for a hamlet, whose regional mayor boasts of a “zero percent crime rate.” Of course, those claims look rather dubious in light of the violent crimes under investigation. There is also a rather disturbing subsequent incident of cattle mutilation. It is understandable why a father like Homil would be concerned, but he has other reasons to be fearful. Melody’s snooping brother may have gotten an eyeful of the sinister going’s on as well.

Wisely, NYAFF is premiering the slightly longer Philippine cut of Town, rather than the international version that played down the uncanny business in the woods. Frankly, Town needs more of that supernatural strangeness, because without it is mostly an unremarkable small-town mystery without it. Granted, the portrayal of Mayor Tessie and Benny Ricarte, a scandal-chasing TV reporter from Manila are sharp enough to draw blood. Ricardo also has a terrific exit that perhaps didn’t make the international cut, given its nature.

Amante Pulido is a compelling, salt-of-the-earth presence as Homil and Joel Saracho brings unexpected dimensions to the film as the dedicated but previously scandal-tarred police chief Wilfredo Tamayo. Lance Raymundo also deserves his due as the flamboyantly sleazy Ricarte. However, the dark, humid environment of Matangtubig largely upstages everyone.

Leyco has a lot of talent for milking tension out of isolated settings. It is an impressive accomplishment in eerie, tropical mise-en-scene, but the narrative is overly familiar. Most of the lurid scandals we can predict early in the first act. Still, the otherworldly stuff definitely adds something distinctive, so if you are ever going to see Town in a Lake, see it when it screens Thursday night (7/6) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.