Tuesday, December 18, 2007

aswang, by wrye martin

I'm a little bit behind on my Film Club writeups, and in the interest of catching up, I'm going to skip No. 16 (Herzog's Nosferatu) and jump straight to No. 17, a low-budget oddity entitled Aswang (1994).

We're still in our run of vampire films, although this film represents something a little more cross-cultural: the vampire-type creatures that the film centers around (the eponymous "Aswang") are drawn from a Filipina folkoric tradition rather than the familiar Euro-centric tradition. We first see one of these creatures in a painting, thusly:

That stuff coming out of its mouth isn't blood, but rather a kind of feeding tube, which the Aswang uses to—there's really no delicate way to put this—consume fetuses out of hapless pregnant women. Needless to say, we need a hapless pregnant woman to come along... oh wait, here's one now!

That's our protagonist Katherine and her boyfriend, engaged in that cinematic standby, the in-the-car, you-could-go-get-an-abortion-right-now conversation. But Katherine doesn't get an abortion, instead she signs her baby over to these two:

...who, surprise surprise, are up to no good. They eventually take her out to meet Mother...

...who actually turns out to be one of those Aswang things. Let the baby-eating hijinxs ensue!

This actually isn't half bad as a first act, but it presents something of a screenwriter's dilemma—you've written a situation where you have one defenseless, pregnant teenage protagonist, without resources, versus a clan of supernatural beasts (with a diabolical Filipina maid / witch thrown in to boot). She's hopelessly outgunned, but in order to survive to the end of the movie she has to escape not one but several attacks on her person, which she manages to do through luck, intervention, or some other (increasingly silly) deus ex machina-type contrivance. And then once she's escaped she needs to get back into peril, usually by some staggering lapse in logic (running back to the house once she's escaped into the comparative safety of the woods, for instance). (The failure of the script during this portion of the film gives me an all-new appreciation of the utility of the one-killer / many-victims formula as a screenwriting device.)

But anyway. It's a maxim of Film Club that the films we watch don't necessarily need to be good, as long as they're interesting. The emphasis on the unborn as the nexus of desire and anxiety certainly has some promise (insert your own Juno joke here). Even more intriguing is the way that the villains are adamant that they have a legal authority to do what they're doing—after all, Katherine has signed over the rights to the infant, way back in the first act. "This is America!" bellows the male Aswang, after Katherine has once again escaped into the woods. "We have laws!"

There's the germ of something interesting there—some kind of anxiety about surrogate motherhood? It was, after all, the mid-Nineties—but ultimately Aswang lacks faith in the interesting elements of its own premise. Instead of exploring that stuff in any kind of sustained way, Aswang is all-too-willing to fall back on the most shopworn stuff from the horror-movie playbook:

And I'll leave you with Aswang take on the "cop who gets a little too curious." Not exactly breaking the mold:

Go ahead and guess what happens to him. (Hint: nothing good.)

This is the last Film Club post for 2007; we will re-convene in early 2008. Happy holidays!

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