Review: Babae at Baril (2019) @QCinema

Following a brutal rape by her colleague, a departmental store sales girl goes on a rage-driven rampage against anyone who tried to take advanatge of her in her life, basically all men. The trigger, pardon the pun, is her discovery of a revolver gun just outside her house, left behind by someone. With a gun in her hand, hence the film’s title (Babae at Baril simply means girl with a gun), she is suddenly bestowed with a new-found confidence and voice and is about to go around setting things right. With the groovy beats of the film’s action-genre soundtrack with a whiff of a 70s Studio 54 sound, one can be mistaken into thinking this is heading in the direction of a girl-power flick where men will learn to behave. But soon, a bevy of new unfamiliar characters appear throwing us off tangent, leaving us to figure out if these people are about to steal the thunder from our heroine. 

It turns out this is a six degree of separation, ala Crash (2004 Oscar Best Picture winner), kind of a movie and the real central character is the revolver. A revolver gets passed from one character to the next over several periods of time and in its journey, we stumble into the lives of different characters, differentially troubled, and all circumstantially changed by the possession of a gun. It begins with a cop-turned-rookie robber who is lured by greed, followed by his son who picks up the revolver hidden in the drawer a decade later, executed with an artful ‘drawer’ time warp. It then gets passed on to a young male Balut (Filipino street delicacy) street vendor in an unfortunate shooting-dare situation, and then to a young street gangster who uses it to rob a house but killed the old female owner in the process. 

Evidently, the audience is taken on a ride not just through a clever, formulaic plot device, but a thoughtful adaptation of this device in the context of a Filipino slum neighbourhood. The characters are undeniably a nasty lot but they are also manifestations of the city Director Rae Red hopes to portray. Harking back to the film’s opening, against the grimy nightscape we see the bumbling of motor and human traffic and we are beckoned into the groove of the city through the beats of a song that turns out to be an impolite take on all that is bad, entrenched and real in the city - ‘alcohol, gambling, coffee, women’. It is a rude a tone-setter for the mayhem we are about to witness and the film does not mince its steps in forcing us to come face-to-face with urgent issues of crime, drug pushing, extra-judiciary violence by the police and women’s positions in this deplorable social construct. Nothing would have come close to the revolver as a plot device in creating the string of life and death situations and digging deep into the psyche of crime in the city. Anything less would have muddied Director Rae Red’s vision of the film. 

Director Red is generous with the characters’ backstories and inner worlds, giving us an ample window into their lives and their relationship with violence. Little touches like the boy and the girl playing with the revolver as a toy and the parallel juxtaposition of the gun-toting action drama on television against the reality of the situation, enrich the layers behind what could end up being just a genre-flick. Also, despite taking us through the revolver’s lineage of male owners, it does not get overlooked that this film still pivots mostly around a female empowerment story. Director Red had a handful of character arcs to deal with, but we are led to be most invested with the sales girl, played with raw emotions, and a huge amount of hair dishevelling, by Janine Gutierrez. She exposes wounds women face in society and finds herself at a turning point where she could call the shots. It is almost as if to ask for all the male-inflicted violence the revolver has been a tool to, how will a female handle it. The answer is, she made good of that opportunity.

I am convinced in the film, Director Red is painting the audience a picture of the city more than a mere portrait of the character. There is a palpable sense of rage and pent up energy pervading through characters in this city from the protagonist herself to her store manager to the street kids. And on that, Director Red commented, ”I think the capitalist and patriarchal system in place forces us to be unkind to each other. The manager may have a lot of pressure from the higher ups. The rapist might have grown up thinking he can get what he wants and get away with it. But in the end everyone is a victim under this system but especially women and women in the lower class.”

So, alcohol, gambling, coffee and women indeed.
Babae at Baril won Best Director and a special Gender Sensitivity Award at the 2019 QCinema International Film Festival, while its lead actress Janine Gutierrez walked away with the Best Actress award. Having made its world premiere at the festival, we look forward to seeing at other festivals.

Review by Jeremy Sing

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