I Am A God: Revisiting Dodo Dayao’s triumphant debut “Violator”
Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on the author’s personal blog in 2015, and later republished as an abridged piece on Film Police Reviews. This new iteration has minor edits.
As first features go, Eduardo ‘Dodo‘ Dayao’s Violator (’14) is leaned 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, Best Picture. I’ve written a verbose, shit-faced reaction to it, in which I deemed it, reflexively, a “virtuosic” work and an “aural assault.”
The riches of watching it for the second time is finding then-undiscovered treasures that Dayao cleverly (dis)places throughout his film.
Violator is a work of a cinephile, first and foremost—an intangible feat that perhaps draws me into the film so much closer. Rare is the case of a filmmaker who almost maps his stylistic influences and has an expansive film journal that documents them. Dayao makes inspired references to David Lynch, Yorgos Lanthimos, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, and possibly, Ingmar Bergman. And he has an apparent obsession with profiles, one that’s rooted on atmosphere rather than narrative function. This obsession paves the way for what in my book is one of the eeriest scenes of recent cinema: it comes at an early scene in the film—in it, is a ghost shot in profile—that sets the film’s overall tone. It is straightforward and blunt, and incidentally, economical too: in that opening scene, Dayao deftly exudes a ramming sense of dread for an eighth of the cost of what lesser hands can only hope to achieve.
This confluence of informed practice (of Dodo, the filmmaker) and genuine romance the filmmaker has with the film (of Dodo, the cinephile) divulges into a most arresting experience. (Sidebar: well, why can’t it be the most ironic too? I’m certain every critic who has written a piece about Dayao’s film chortled at the uniquely amazing fact that he’s “critiquing the critic”?)
The end is nigh—three suicides, a creepy home video, and many ghostly apparitions signal it. The sky rips itself apart and begins work. Thunderstorm rumbles in its darkness. Six males get stranded on a precinct—a setting crucial to Dayao’s sprawling design. The film is an ode to both Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo and John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13, after all, and like its progenitors, Violator pulsates an unmistakable air of machismo. Victor Neri, portraying the role of a dirty cop, perhaps exhibits this the clearest: his arrest of the night—the Enemy, as the sinister house help (Andy Bais) would call him—is mere consolation to every inch of him lost to his superior (Cesar Montano) and by the gravity of their ghastly doings. Outside, the typhoon breaks; the earth is soaked, overcast a rain of dying crows.
The jail cell, damp and pitch-dark, is the most appropriate venue for both discussing and mediating death. Often, through Dayao’s informed use of the frame, his subjects emerge from a particular shadow where they come out of at a very precise moment. His subjects are not exclusive to people (and you already know that his film being one about the Devil) but also objects: in one particular scene, Dayao closes the camera tightly on Mang Vic (Bais) and Officer Manabat (Anthony Falcon) who speak about the forthcoming typhoon. Their conversation goes on, from life to death, then back to the beginning, and finally to the end. Dayao concludes this scene finally with a wide shot of the precinct, Mang Vic and Manabat sat on a long wooden stool, playing chess—a reference, I imagine, to Bergman’s The Seventh Seal.
The payoff at the end is foursquare and soul-rending. The Enemy—a scrawny, chatty little chap played by Timothy Mabalot, who wells with unnerving, devil-like energy—crawls like a faceless reptile to wounded precinct chief Benito Alano, played by Joel Lamangan, who portrays his character with sheer brio. Earlier in the film, the chief speaks of a swindling syndicate that guises its members as a rapture cult. It’s a hoax that even the likes of Charito Solis get dragged into. “Ilang beses na ba dapat nagunaw ang mundo,” he asks. Unbeknownst to him, the Devil is already at work. On rooftops of corporations, on the four corners of promised nurture, on top of hills of asphalt—the Devil has already begun his work. Somewhere, a true cult already anticipates the final flick of His deal.