The Fantasia International Film Festival, based in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, has a history of not only varied films, but Asian cinema in particular, hosting films from Hong Kong and Japan in its early days. It has since spread its wings to include premieres of films such as Inglourious Basterds, Ringu and one of my personal favorites, Dread, yet it still spotlights Asian cinema with a supernatural twist. One such film, Matangtubig (Town in a Lake, 2016), hails from the Philippines, and is more than worth your attention.
Mantangtubig (Town in a Lake) marks the third film from director Jet Leyco. Writer Brian Gonzales penned a story that plays out as very much the nightmare of any community: a high school student is abducted with her best friend and later found dead, while her friend remains missing. A media frenzy descends upon the town as both grieving parents and concerned villagers attempt to figure out how this happened. Politicians and police officers try to preserve the image of the village. All the while, a quiet fisherman contemplates reporting his eyewitness account of the abduction, an action whose implications could render something far worse than the actual crimes.
An official selection of the NY Asian Film Festival 2017, International Film Festival Rotterdam 2017, and Taipei Film Festival 2017, Leyco’s effort succeeds based upon three pieces of a smooth, alluring puzzle: tight writing, fluid direction, and nuanced performances. Gonzales crafts a simple story that easily preys upon fears of both the community as well as parents in general: that your safe, happy, familiar place will be completely shattered, and something horrible will happen to the very young. The subject matter proves difficult, but is handled well: if you’re looking for wringing hands and overwrought delivery, though, this isn’t the film. Where Gonzales stops with the script, Leyco steps in to provide a thoughtful portrait of a community attempting to save face and find answers. The neat trick Leyco employs is the distance and shadows used to remove the audience from the action: we’re allowed to look at these individuals, but we’re not allowed to become them. We observe their pain without feeling it; we have to dig and make our own interpretations and process what they’re enduring – whether it’s fear or worry or grief – without having that all-to-often-utilized access to inner monologue. We must rely upon body language and paying attention to the brief pieces of dialogue we get as Leyco only allows us to stand so close. Where this method of storytelling truly excels is the collective cast performance. Not once did I feel that anyone was overacting or reaching too far. The cast portrays human beings shuffling along as best they can, whether it is through the loss of a child, to holding onto hope to becoming angry that the sharing of a secret may harm your family.
Combining these three components, the film manages to touch upon some pieces of the human experience that are simultaneously common and uncomfortable. It is not enough to have the menacing line of “we’re only trying to be friendly” written on a page – it’s a casual delivery to a pair of teenage girls walking alone at night, and the shadows surrounding them, that makes us feel helpless as we watch their abduction. It is the context of being a woman and having experienced that fear when someone approaches you and claims friendliness as they block your path that makes this scenario so scary. It is the sick, angry feeling evoked when you see a smarmy political figure try to use someone’s tragedy as a photo op. And it is a stunned silence when the team shifts the entire tone on a dime in the final minutes of the film, causing this reviewer in particular to go, “Wait, what?” Yes, there’s a twist. And by the time you’ve finished processing everything else going on, you’ll be left feeling more than a bit winded by it. I know I certainly wanted to go back and re-watch the film once new contextual information was added.
If you like your horror rooted in the horrors of the everyday, Mantangtubig (Town in a Lake) will satisfy that need. If you like a good twist, this one will deliver a quick stab that will leave you bleeding before you even realize you’re injured. Either way, this film embodies the spirit of Fantasia, and that’s definitely worth checking out.