MOVIE REVIEW: Pailalim Is a Harrowing Indie Film That Hits Close to Home

This new indie film digs deep to tell the story about a family living in a cemetery.


( Step into the nearest local cemetery, and you’ll see a familiar sight: Row upon row of graves stacked atop each other like towering grids. Some graves bear the usual marble headstones, while others are sealed with a wall of cement with the deceased’s name crudely scratched on the surface. Hiding within this cramped labyrinth are dozens of families who take nightly shelter in unvisited mausoleums.


This situation is so commonplace that we often look past them when Undas rolls around, but first-time filmmaker Daniel R. Palacio puts it front and centerand it’s hard to watch. At the center of the story is Bangis (Joem Bascon), who breaks into coffins to look for valuables that he can resell in pawn shops. What little cash he makes from his grave robbing, he uses to provide for Barbie (Mara Lopez) and their young daughter, Ningning (Grace Ann Betalmos).




The film is produced by Brillante Mendoza (who also serves as “creative consultant”), so it comes as no surprise that it plays like a gritty documentary, delving into the lives of people who consider this Pasig City cemetery their home. Many have blankets and pillows, others even have electric fans; Bangis and his family have even gone as far as to decorate their mausoleum with little trinkets. And even when these families are periodically driven away by the local government (in the form of red-shirted “Action Line” officials who arrive by the truckload), they’ve devised a system to keep their belongings safe and later, bribe the cemetery guard to let them back in.



The plot takes a turn when the sickly Ningning’s condition worsens because her parents’ financial situation is so dire that they’ve let her illness go on for too long. Bangis realizes that they only way he can save his daughter is to break into the coffin of a newly deceased man and sell his body for more money. This heist sequence is the film’s highlight: It’s filled with genuinely exciting edge-of-your-seat tension, though it may feel short-lived. Both Bascon and Lopez are fantastic in their rolesespecially in more emotional momentsbut it's Bascon who really makes the film with a nuanced, empathic performance.




The script (also written by Palacio) gets off to a shaky and far-too lengthy start but to its credit, this isn’t a run-of-the-mill examination of poverty. Instead, it expands its scope to paint a harrowing picture of inequality and the many ways it manifests in the lives of the impoverished. We see it play out when the couple flat-out decide not to go to the hospital for fear of medical costs. When they later rush Ningning to the emergency room, it turns out that doctors are heartbreakingly far and few, and no one is around to immediately attend to them.  We also see it in the people surrounding Bangis, such as Lala, a drug-addled woman who heartbreakingly must use sex as a means of survival in their unforgiving world.


Palacio’s picture of inequality even extends to how the privileged view (and benefit from) those in the lowest rung of the social ladder. The nurse chastises the couple for not giving their daughter paracetamoleven going as far to as to openly belittling them when they confess where they live. The government, though fully aware of this community’s living situation, remains callously indifferent. (One angered resident shouts “Sipsip kay mayor!” as the Action Line truck drives away.)




On a technical note, the film’s sound design immerses its audience in the rowdy streets of Pasig City by amplifying the surroundings; the roar of tricycle engines and the chatter of a cramped local hospital are near deafening. Cinematography by Rommel Sales is also notable, with his clever use of light and darkness during night sequences in the cemetery, as well as varying color schemes to heighten the mood.



There are no happy endings in this storyand to do one would be a complete disservice—making it hard to leave Pailalim without a lump in your throat. If Palacio’s intention was to thoroughly shake his audience awake, he may have just succeeded.


RATING: 3.5 out of 5 spots


Pailalim is an entry under the World Focus section of the 30th Tokyo International Film Festival, which ran from October 25 to November 3. It will be screened in local cinemas in 2018.

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