I. Am. A God: Revisiting Dodo Dayao’s triumphant debut, ‘Violator’

Like its antagonist, ‘Violator’ begs to be called multiple names: virtuosic, arresting, a unique work with devilish designs.

FROM THE ARCHIVES is a collection of essays, analyses, and thought pieces from Unreel’s private vault of unpublished and previously published writing dating back to December 2012.

AS FIRST FEATURES GO, Dodo Dayao’s Violator leans more towards an introduction of voice rather than a statement. I saw it for the first time during its auspicious run at the Cinema One Originals Film Festival in November 2015, where it won, rightly, the Best Picture award. Like its antagonist, it begs to be called multiple names: virtuosic, arresting, a unique work with devilish designs. Rewatching it for the nth time yields more gory and unnerving bits as if it could get any more grotesque and terrifying.

Violator is the work of someone who understands films. It’s what compels people like me — schmucks maneuvering life by codifying everything through film and media — to be so drawn in. It’s less about the stylistic influences (think Lynch, Kurosawa, and maybe…Bergman?) and more about how he’s taking cues from these titans to craft something distinctly dreadful. You see it when the film opens with a shot of a woman, lonely and phantom-esque. Then, it happens. The woman disappears, and we catch up to the fact that it was actually the woman’s ghost. Dayao employs these techniques to great effect: a corrupt policeman’s profile propping out of the shadow; a student wearing a pig’s head; a static shot of bodiless clothes.

The end is nigh. Three suicides, a creepy home video, and many ghostly apparitions signal it. The nighttime sky rips itself apart. A thunderstorm rumbles in its darkness. Six males get stranded in a precinct — a setting crucial to Dayao’s design. The film reads like an ode to both Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo and John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13. And like these films, Violator has that unmistakable air of machismo. When a dirty cop (Victor Neri) comes in to detain a delinquent youth (Timothy Mabalot) — the Enemy, as the enigmatic precinct custodian (Andy Bais) would call him — you know it to be his consolation for the ghastly, inhumane thing him and his superior (Cesar Montano) did just hours prior. Outside, the typhoon breaks; the earth is soaked, overcast, a rain of dying crows.

The damp and pitch-dark jail cell is an apt venue for meditating death. Employing the skillful use of shadows, Dayao lets all manners of ghoulishness and violence come out at very precise moments. From disembodied voices to literal hell spawns, the characters in the film are constantly faced with supernatural and existential dread: in one scene, Mang Vic, the custodian, and Officer Manabat (Anthony Falcon), a good-doing cop, play a game of chess on a long wooden stool. They talk about the typhoon, life, death, the beginning, and the end — a reference, I suspect, to Bergman’s The Seventh Seal.

Still image from ‘Violator’ ©QuiaPost, 2015

The film’s denouement is soul-rending. The Enemy — a scrawny, whipsmart little pip who might just be a manifestation of Satan himself — crawls like a faceless reptile to wounded precinct chief Benito Alano, played by Joel Lamangan, who portrays his character with incredible bravura. Earlier in the film, the chief speaks of a syndicate that guises its members as a rapture cult as a means for swindling money. It’s a hoax that even the likes of Charito Solis get dragged into. “Ilang beses na ba dapat nagunaw ang mundo,” he ponders. 

Unbeknownst to him, the Devil is already at work. On rooftops of corporations, in liminal classrooms, on top of hills of asphalt — the Devil has already tended to his designs. Somewhere, a real cult already makes that leap. In a bittersweet act of concession, Chief Alano taunts the Devil and says, under his breath: “One. Zero.” It’s a bleak way of closing a story about the forces that shackle us deep into the darkness. When asked about an alternate ending to his film, Dodo answers: “The floodwaters rise. The world ends. Everybody dies. Nobody grieves. In short, a happy ending.

Official poster for ‘Violator’ ©QuiaPost, 2015
Where to watch Violator

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