Film Review: The Mortician of Manila (2019)

Directed by Leah Borromeo, The Mortician of Manila focuses on the effects of President Rodrigo Duterte's drug war in the Philippines. His campaign has claimed 30,000 lives so far and the death rate doesn’t seem to be slowing down.

The documentary starts off with neither a title card nor opening credits. The very first shot of the documentary is of a bloodied dead body, one riddled with gunshot wounds, as explained by undertaker Orly Fernandez. He serves as a guide to this dark and untold tale of death and loss, explaining to Leah the daily occurrences that he witnesses on a regular basis. He goes on to explain that if a body is unidentified, he will simply post pictures of the body on Facebook in a bid to find the next-of-kin. As the audience reels with shock at such an uncouth practice, Orly explains in a matter-of-fact tone, “That’s how it is.”

This very first scene prepares the audience for the rest of the documentary, where there will be more dead bodies, more sorrow and more disturbing facts that will shock anyone who has been sheltered in a first-world country such as Singapore.

The documentary does an excellent job of showcasing the different facets of the story. It features the emotional grief of a mother who has just lost her son, depicting the pain that comes with this drug war. On the other hand, the documentary also features Orly who remains a diehard Duterte supporter despite the boiling pot of violence and emotions that he has to bear witness every day.

Orly is the driving force of this documentary and it’s a very good choice from director Leah Borromeo to focus on Orly. He is the audience’s link to his world and is a man of contradictions when it comes to such issues, but he doesn’t mind sharing his views freely with the filmmakers. He gives the documentary a sense of harsh realism, humour and sense of warmth in his interaction with his friends, co-workers and his adopted daughter.

It isn’t long before the audience realise that Orly is very much your everyday man. Like his customers, Orly isn’t rich but he tries to help the victims as much as he can while still trying to support his family. In one scene, we see his daughter tell him that she’s hungry and he tells her that there’s food, which turns out to be cup noodles. We see him doing his best as a father in taking care for his child and one of the most lighthearted moments of the documentary is when he banters with his daughter as she tries to guess his age, which he refuses to reveal.

The filmmakers also feature Orly celebrating his 67th birthday with friends, employees, some family, photojournalist and his dogs. It is the most heart-warming scene in the documentary amidst all the blood and death and it really grounds Orly as an empathetic man who isn’t indifferent to the victims of the killings despite his support for Duterte. In fact, Orly makes up the 82% of the Philippines population who still support Duterte’s drug war, a shockingly high figure despite the violent results.

As a journalist herself, Leah Borromeo does an excellent job angling her story to reveal the censorship that the media has to bear in the face of Duterte’s drug war. She features two photojournalists working in the Philippines, Vincent Go and “Brother Jun”, both of whom are passionate in covering the extrajudicial killings. They represent a fa├žade that is rarely featured in mainstream media as journalists are prohibited by the government from covering any of these killings in a bid to minimise the amount of flak the Duterte administration has been receiving. I feel that it’s extremely important to highlight the good and hard work that journalists have put in to cover such stories for the world to see. Without them, the government will have more freedom to do as they please with the extrajudicial killings.

The technical aspects of the documentary are very well-crafted, such as a soundtrack by Jamie Perera that is a data sonification by of all the deaths in the war on drugs in its soundtrack. Each sound is a casualty from 2016 to the present day and it effectively evokes a sense of dread and terror in the audience, reflecting the emotions of the human beings whom we see on screen. The cinematography by Joshua Reyles is excellent as well, despite the harsh and cramped conditions that he had to shoot in, and his focus makes every frame of the documentary mesmerising.

My only personal gripe with the documentary is that it could have covered more depth in its subject matter. I understand that the filmmakers may want to keep the scale of the documentary small so as to feature the more human elements of the drug war. However, the drug war has many other shocking aspects that should be covered as well, such as the increasing corruption within law enforcement officers and the abuse of authority with the killing and kidnapping of certain prominent figures by the police.

The Mortician of Manila is a documentary that should be seen by everyone, especially South-East Asians who are in such close proximity to such atrocities. The documentary doesn’t have a clear stance on which side it picks; rather it presents the different views of different characters and it has the dignity to let the audience decide for themselves who they'd rather align themselves with. It serves as an entry into a topic that is very controversial, but very important in today’s chaotic political climate and director Leah Borromeo has done a superb job in covering this subject matter.
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