Short Film Review – Manila Death Squad

Manila Death Squad is a tumultuous short film by Filipino born, New York based, Dean Colin Marcial. It is a short that doesn’t shy away from the socio-political problems of the Philippines in the administration of 2016 elected Prime Minister, Rodrigo Duertete.

The short should be well regarded as it delivers embossing visuals and emotions from a strong cast, reminiscent Edgar Wright-esque visuals, and a staccato splatstick eighties style of editing and visual effects. Marcial’s short gives us an abrasive delivery of the darker side of everyday life in the Philippines without condescension but rather, brutal realism.

The short opens with a drifting steadicam shot in a bar of a short-haired girl singing a classic Sinatra tune I did it my way, hara-kiki fashion. No room for introduction the short kicks off, it’s loud, punk, vigorous and youthful without being visually bombastic, nor emphatic.

We’re introduced to a fictional gang – The Manila Death Squad and its nameless ring leader played by Sid Lucero. A young American-Filipina journalist Oliva, played by Annicka Dolonius, walks into the groups’ circle all savvy and witty, introduces herself, independently takes a seat and starts prodding.

The narrative is kept bare, no fat. Olivia wants an interview with the gang’s boss, she wants to find out more about why they conduct themselves the way they do? She compromises for a small question to the ring leader “why do you do this for a living?” to which the nameless gang leader gives a rational yet impertinent answer as a matter of – “Destroying crime.”

The screenplay by Marcial and collaborator, Kent Szlauderbach takes the dialogue from conversational to live-die Manzai. The execution of acting, staging, camera angles and sheer colouring of red evolve from a stage, to a bar, to a political arena. The whole sense of the scene sets the train going off the edge.

A round of King’s Cup – categories in assassins; the gang’s erudition. The camera pans to the face of each character, almost a homage to the opening scene of Reservoir Dogs. The conversation leads to a long detour of names, then to the gang leader expertly assimilating the death of JFK. Lucero demonstrates a broad range of acting abilities, switching from didactic assimilation to sear machismo buffoonery with drink and gun, his nonchalant heavy air almost makes his character lovable.

After the peak of the nameless gang leader’s lap of swearing, erudition and scrambling opinions, Olivia prods for an interview with the Manila Death Squad’s boss. More subtitles mercilessly fling across the screen, distorting and amplifying the energy around the table.

Nameless leader and Olivia settle the matter on a game of stories, where they have to state a line, memorize, repeat and add an additional line, the loser drinks. In this scene the chemistry of the co-stars is as tight as a snare, the eye contact between the two could have made the film a romance rather a political-experimental. The actors effortlessly gun out tongue-twisting sentences with precise articulation, which climaxes to the nameless leader slandering.

The short ends, mercilessly. It is almost a raw sample of Negan and his captured adversaries. Dark, loud motorbikes, goons, leather and groveling for mercy panned to a pulsating mechanical soundscape.

Dean Colin Marcial justly delivers an emotionally and visually impact short film; switching between American and Filipino lenses, on the dark side of everyday life in the Philippines caught up in its War on Drugs. However, it is a shame that the short only depicted one side of the situation, and at times, felt overloaded with slapstick eighties visual effects, a little less, and the film could have created more room for emotional depth.

Keanu Arcadio

Short, Crime | Philippines / USA, 2017 | 13mins | Subtitles | Dir.Dean Colin Marcial | Sid Lucero & Annicka Dolonius