Directed by Jerrold Tarog
Written by Aloy Adlawan and Jerrold Tarog

If you go by the way he juiced up last year’s edition of the haggard Shake Rattle & Roll franchise with Punerarya, and also by the pop vibrancy of his independent non-genre work, Jerrold Tarog seems to have enough pedigree for remixing the beloved Peque Gallaga-Lore Reyes chestnut. And Aswang is ostensibly a monster movie, but it’s one that seems more interested in things other than its monsters: in the way revenge can transform you into the object of your violence, for one, in the imperatives of a species determined to arrest its extinction, in a small town living perpetually under threat, and above all, in the dissonances between the urban and the rural, the modern and the ancient, the natural and the supernatural, and the point when the lines between them blur.

It pivots on a teenage boy and his baby sister witnessing the cold-blooded massacre of their household. And having your parents murdered violently before your eyes turns out to be the shared tragedy of its principal characters, and also the tragedy that cracks everything open for a potentially bloodier, more mean-spirited sequel. But it’s a subtext that goes neither viral or nova, simmering rather under the skin of the piece, a trauma that never gets enough room to fester and seethe, nor gets to go anywhere really, as everyone is too busy running for their lives, if not from hired assassins, then inevitably from monsters, who shapeshift into crows, burrow under the ground like moles, sprout nasty fangs, eat live flesh. Aswang is also from Regal, after all. And it wants its monster movie to be interested in its monsters.

It doesn’t take a genius anymore, these days, or much intel for that matter, to second-guess the processes that transpire when a studio makes a film, much more one meant to be a tentpole. And Aswang is beset by the sort of push-pull that occurs when you wring a filmmaker used to being left to his own devices, or a filmmaker who simply has his own devices period, through the knotty caprices of our studio matriarchies, as auteurist sensibility and studio directive constantly arm-wrestle for dominance. And it can be its own bit of fun trying to figure out which is which.

That dream slash love sequence does smack of pure Regal. And the stable newbies as well as the not-so-newbies are perhaps why the affectless, effortless performances that have enlivened every single one of Jerrold’s films before this is alarmingly nowhere to be found and nearly breaks the back of the piece in its absence. The bristling attack by the river does spasm with Jerrold’s skittish vigor. And much as I can’t figure out why they bother when they can fly anyway, the burrowing under the ground to catch prey is a splendid effect that accounts for at least one breathtaking money shot. But it’s not so much the jittery brio of Confessional that Aswang taps into, but rather the meditative languor of the underrated Mangatyanan. And there’s a gravity to Aswang that slows it down some, possibly slower than it should be, but thickens the mood, too, until it gains, particularly in the sequences at the abandoned ranch where the monsters hole up, this weird, pungent density.

*Originally Published in Lagarista as Tropical Maladies.

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