Film Review: Batch '81 (1982)

Mike de Leon’s 1982 masterpiece, Batch '81 starts off innocently enough: Sid Lucero is a freshman at a university in the Philippines. Like any ordinary student in a school-related movie, he goes to class late, even gets chewed out by the teacher, that is until Lucero decides to join the Alpha Kappa Omega fraternity, one of the most prestigious fraternities in the university. There, he gets subjected to a six-month long initiation where he and other applicants undergo trials that have them endure extraneous humiliation, physical, and psychological pain.  

He is forced to call his seniors, who oversaw the initiation into the fraternity, as ‘masters’; he is made to submit to them for almost any humiliating and sadistic scheme plausible, including pain tolerance experiments, repeated hazing sessions, and running on the streets clad in nothing but underwear. Watching the trials the characters have to go through, and the humiliation and stripping of the initiates’ individual rights, the film starts to draw parallels to fascism, and by extension, the Marcos regime.

But beyond the sadism evoked in the film, the lightheartedness found at the beginning never really do completely disappear. During one of the early trials, the initiates are forced to strip completely naked while being blindfolded, and are made to think that they are watched by women as they do so, we are made privy to see what actually happens. The ‘masters’ play audio tapes of women reacting to them as they strip, a rather amusing practical joke. And perhaps this is why that feeling of lightheartedness remains, despite the hazing, the sadism inflicted, the humiliation, it always feels as though the people behind the Alpha Kappa Omega were just playing one big, and overly excessive practical joke. 

The ‘masters’ tell them early on that they will not bother them when they are with their family, or in class, or when they are with their girlfriends. For the most part, the initiates’ personal lives are kept as separate as they can be. They keep their word, they do not seem to be out to destroy the lives of others. And later, in a spectacular musical sequence in the film, where the fraternity initiates are made to perform a segment of the musical play, Cabaret, the ‘masters’ themselves join in…  

Cinema is a powerful medium. It can evoke emotions and sensations with story and the use of technique. Watching the Cabaret moment in the film, I’ve been made to believe that everything was worth it, all the pain, the humiliation, the shame, that everything that has happened all made sense, it was part of something worth while.

It’s an unsettling thought. How has this film managed to convince that a totalitarian rule can be somehow worth it, all while still emphasising, and showing the horrific and overly sadistic trials that the initiates have to go through? 

'Alpha Kappa Omega. The fraternity is the beginning and the end.’ The initiates were taught the fraternity’s creed. Is it even important? Does it even really stand for something other than just meaning that the frat is the most important thing? Before, the initiates were forced to learn it, forced to remember, to recite it. They cursed their ‘masters’, and only carried on wishing to make their humiliations and pain worth it. As they continued on further, the initiates begin to feel like they have become part of the frat. Despite an ordeal which challenged an initiate's decision to stay within the initiation programme into the fraternity, he did not drop out, instead the initiate’s camaraderie is strengthened. They chant the creed, it has become their own. 

In the film’s stunning climax, blood is shed. The brutality and violent nature of men, made true to see. Lucero thinks that it is inevitable. Some of his friends have shed blood, but they were unlucky. The fraternity is not at fault. 

Batch '81 is a marvel of a film, it is a masterpiece of Philippine cinema. It asks us to question and further examine the hazing systems of the fraternity, and to a greater extend, totalitarian authorities, while still showing, how easy and vulnerable we are to become susceptible and even, part of such a rule.


Review by Timothy Ong
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