The vagaries of motherhood are seized, taunted, and maimed in lucidly clear detail in “Ma”, an exquisitely realized thriller that pokes at and fiddles with our frailties as humans.
As debut features go, the film is as hopeful as it gets: clean, efficient, and told with a filmmaking voice that’s assuredly distinct and distinctly assured. That voice is of Cebuano filmmaker Kenneth Dagatan, who here expounds on his short film, “Sanctissima”, and the supposed tranquility of the bond between mother and child, disrupted by the wickedness that lives inside both. Where in “Sanctissima” Dagatan displayed a brisk but guts-to-the-wall spookfest about cutting the proverbial and literal maternal cord, here, his hold is more exacting and incredibly patient. The dread is drawn-out and the characters’ doom is punishingly gradual. The film’s prologue—seventeen minutes of taut tension and thick atmosphere, in itself a masterclass in genre filmmaking—almost tips you over a threshold, a great reference to the fever dream that comes next.
That covers about everything you need to know about “Ma”. It’s biting, grotesque, and a deftly crafted horror-thriller. And that, in itself, should suffice as reason to seek the movie out (the film premieres on ABS-CBN’s premier streaming service, iWant), but it pays to look closer.
At its core, “Ma” is a visual confrontation of maternity. Lensed expertly by Cesca Lee, there’s not a single frame out of place. And yet, the film doesn’t give it all in one go. Rather, it unloads in visual spurts of striking feminine imagery, from telluric crevices and religious idols to something as mundane as an expecting young mother, blankly staring at her life-bearing belly. These images, and indirectly notions about motherhood, are later pervaded in the film’s gut-wrenching finale. It’s a bloody culmination that leaves the viewers with at least one grotesque and doubtless indelible moment.
At seventy-seven minutes and unfolding in its deliberate pace, the film feels substantial—long enough to drive us over to its wretched nightmare but brief enough not to outstay its welcome. Structurally, the film clangs no bells and whistles: the first half is devoted entirely to tracing two different characters: Cecille, a morose young teacher played by Anna Luna, and Samuel, a troubled young boy played by Kyle Espiritu. There’s little that connects these characters, except for the mysterious, wish-granting tree that calls them. That, and the shared guilt they feel over losing their loved ones. In one scene, for instance, when her best friend (Kate Alejandrino) tells her that she shouldn’t blame herself over her boyfriend’s suicide, Cecille snaps: “We’re all to blame.”
Samuel, meanwhile, is out in the woods, eyes wide with moral blankness. The first we meet him he punctures a dead crow, making him look like a spawn both to Edgar Allan Poe and Jeffrey Dahmer—a pair-up that never goes right. When his mother (Glydel Mercado) befalls a gruesome death, he turns to a tree that—mystically—grows inside a cave. The tree warbles on about granting the boy’s wish to resurrect his mother, but at a cost. Without any regard to subtlety, the tree tells Samuel that it wants a life that hasn’t been “touched by the wind”. And it just so happens that Cecille, his mother’s childhood friend who’s now six months into her pregnancy, has gone back to town.
If the story sounds ostentatious, it’s because it is. But aided with fine talents both on and off-screen, the film sprawls into an elegantly wrought story that inquires to the fears and anxieties of motherhood. The screenplay, co-written by Dagatan and Dodo Dayao (“Violator”), gnaws its way slowly into the film’s bloody center. There’s an incredible sense of polish here that’s rarely seen in Philippine horror. Though there are some nitpicky stuff that I disagree with, the screenplay holds its ground quite well, even after numerous viewings. And say this, if anything: I’m glad our genre filmmakers—the good ones, anyway—know the right people to collaborate with.
All these small parts line up against a clear vision of a young director whose work shows promise, panache, and an uncompromised resolve to sail to our own little hearts of darkness. I can’t wait for more.