Neill Dela Llana and Ian Gamazon’s film Cavite opens and closes with the same shot, and that’s part of the film’s problem. The circular structuring makes sense from a plotting standpoint, as well as serving as a subtle reinforcement of the run-around the film’s protagonist gets. Ending on that particular image, though, sends some strange mixed messages. I’d like to think that Cavite isn’t saying what I think it’s saying, but I remain unsure.
This thematic dissonance is a shame, too, because in terms of technical matters, Cavite is an impressive display of no-budget ingenuity. Dela Llana and Gamazon clearly didn’t have a lot of money with which to work, so they compensated by crafting a bare-bones scenario requiring nothing more than a handheld video camera, a cellular phone and a plane ticket to the Philippines.
In what was probably a further attempt at cost-cutting, Gamazon also plays Adam, the holder of that plane ticket. He goes to the Philippines for reasons which, at the outset, are unspecified. When he lands, his cell phone rings. On the other end is an unfriendly voice telling him that his wife and sister have been kidnapped and if Adam wants no harm to come to them, he’d better start following orders right fucking now.
It’s a well-worn premise (more than one review has compared this film to Joel Schumacher’s Phone Booth); what is striking about the directors’ approach is the aggressive minimalism of the craftsmanship. Save for one sequence (which I’ll touch upon later), Adam is in every shot. The camera follows him around like it’s attached to him. It’s 80 minutes of Adam hustling from place to place, performing tasks and getting berated by the mystery caller, and that’s about all it is. Thrillers don’t get more pared down than this: There’s a guy whose family is in danger, and he’s trying to do whatever he can to save them, and that is all we see. There are no subplots, digressions or interruptions.
This narrative austerity means there’s nothing to rupture the immediacy of the situation. Dela Llana and Gamazon pump this immediacy for all it’s worth – Cavite has a grimy, sweaty tension that gets sustained through the increasingly frantic performance of Gamazon (very good as a guy caught up in something he doesn’t understand) and the violent intimacy of the videography. I’m not generally a fan of DV photography, but it can be effective under certain circumstances. This film benefits from one of those circumstances; the approach to the story demands the use of handheld photography for artistic reasons, not just financial ones.
What’s more, the filmmakers are consistently creative in thinking up ways around their financial shortcomings. The most notable of these is a long sequence which finds Adam walking into a bank and closing an account to get money. When Adam enters the bank, the camera breaks off from him and instead follows a young boy as he goes and buys food from McDonald’s.
It’s an audacious move – the visuals are contrasted with the continuing stream of instruction and insult that Adam hears, suggesting that the country of the Philippines has enough problems of its own (the boy, a recurring character, is clearly impoverished) and is thus is indifferent to Adam’s plight. The sequence was likely borne from necessity (I’d wager that Dela Llana and Gamazon weren’t able to get a permit to film inside the bank), but it ends up being the high point of the film and a reminder of the squalor that Adam has tried to leave behind himself.
So it’s a very well-made thriller. But to what purpose has it been made? It’s here that I run aground, because as confident as Dela Llana and Gamazon are as craftsmen, their storytelling is muddled and troubling. To fully explain my objections to the film’s possible message would involve giving away the entire plot, but I suppose it hinges on whether or not the first shot is a flash-forward. If it isn’t, then maybe can skate by as a portrait of a guy who makes unthinkable sacrifices to protect that which he loves. But if it is (and I suspect it is), that brings up questions of intent which Cavite is unequipped to answer.
Adam is a native Filipino and a Muslim, but the outset of the film makes it clear that he’s been westernized. The mystery caller makes note of this and chastises Adam whenever possible (for instance, taking him to task for speaking English even though he is fluent in Tagalog). As Adam runs from place to place on the directions of the caller, it becomes clear he’s taking a tour of the poorer sections of Manila and its outlying areas. The caller, it seems, is trying to get him to understand the conditions that the downtrodden must suffer in this country, but does that explain or justify Adam’s ultimate destination?
What’s more, after Adam does what must be done in order to save his family, the caller praises him for getting back his heritage. Adam, at the time, is understandably shell-shocked. The last scenes recall the opening scenes, with Adam going about his lonely life in an attempt to make it as an immigrant in America. Except… there’s that closing shot.
If my suspicions are correct and the opening shot is a flash-forward to the closing shot, then Dela Llana and Gamazon presumably agree with the caller and believe that Adam’s ordeal, though horrific, has had the benefit of bringing him back to his roots. This is an insane and foolhardy position to take.
There are other problems, as well; like most paranoia thrillers, believability is secondary to tension. (Is the whole Filipino population united against Adam or what?) There’s also a certain repetitiveness to Adam’s journey – there’s only so many slums and squatter camps through which one can follow a man before shouting, “Message received, get on with the film!” These, though, are acceptable deficiencies; the epilogue problems are fatal. The question remains: does this film endorse or disown what it shows?
The last shot implies the former, as does a late monologue from Adam’s girlfriend that is astonishing in its ham-handed idiocy. With Cavite, Dela Llana and Gamazon show themselves as filmmakers to watch, but their worldview is disheartening, maybe dangerous. The attempt at humanizing a difficult issue is appreciated, but where are we left? I wish I knew.