Film Review: Red (2014)

Gold statues, shimmering under overcast skies. Grand, opulent churches, captured in all its Baroque splendour in an admiring low angle. A long tradition of stories, legends, beliefs, the sacred words, deserving of all its airs and grandiosity. And we cut to the Bacolod Central Market, handled with that same delicate framing, and as a time lapse of life passes the implication is clear; this is a site of words, as sacred as the ground where the cathedral stands, taking life and vitality to become something of its own. This is Bacolod. A place of stories – a perfect beginning to a film about the subjectivity of stories.

Unfortunately, it all goes downhill from there.

Red, directed by Jay Abello, is a 2014 Filipino crime drama about the life of Red (Jericho Rosales), from his life as a parentless child growing up in a girly bar to his adulthood as a legendary fixer – as told by his sidekick, Milton (Nico Antonio), to a group of market-goers at the Central Market. Red is caught in a drug plot and a main suspect is Art Ledesma (JM Rodrigeuz), a rich son of a congressman; yet Red cannot seem to resolve his relationship issues with his childhood sweetheart, Mai (Mercedes Cabral).

The concept of the film is an ambitious and, I will admit, a respectable one. As a great storyteller, Milton feels he has a duty to pad his stories with great drama – the stuff of legends. Of course, there is a tension between his version of events and reality, and this also causes him internal tension – something that he deals with throughout the film. The problem is that it’s entirely too convoluted. The lack of basic stylistics – even overt uses of warm/cold tones, as in Little Women (2019, dir. Greta Gerwig) would have helped in providing some clarity between the past and the present – a necessitated differentiation, since both feature the same cast of characters, in the same space in different times. It all only begins to tie up at the end, but by then I had lost interest altogether. If there had been some coherent structure or logic to it – Run Lola Run (1998, dir. Tom Tywker) comes to mind here, which blends disparate elements into a coherent narrative – it may have been pulled off. No such thing exists in the film.

I was numbed by the sheer amount of plot forced into me, with very little substance. A major fault in this film is its use of expository dialogue; developments in plot are told to us, rather than shown. Even the Hollywood tentpoles show something, but here, twists and turning points are represented through a phone call. Unforgivable is the young newcomer in the market’s circle as a placeholder for the audience, where things are explained in dumbed-down, excruciating detail. The multiplicitous structure of storytelling also refuses to withhold information from the audience – the perspective jumps from character to character, each revealing their own motivations through cheesy, clich├ęd dialogue, and as such there is no tension – nothing to keep us entranced. And with this philosophy of telling not showing, no amount of synth music can substitute for the genuine lack of tension.

One thing that people seem to like is the romance subplot with Mai. Milton’s account of Red begins with the sentimentality of a little boy with no money adopted by the owner of a hostess club falling in love with a girl. Of course, this has implications over the rest of the film – it is the Lie that Red believes, that he must earn enough money to be good enough for Mai.

But what implications does it have on Red’s journey of deception? Little to none, I’d argue. The action elements are as disparate as oil and water to the subplot. Character development is almost nonexistent – when Mai decides to move to Manila for space away from Red’s controlling, patronising gaze, he finds her and exposes his insecurities over money, saying that it is all for Mai. Immediately it seems as if Red’s ego and dominance is forgotten, and Mai is reduced to a damsel in distress, crying out for Red to return to her. The next time we return to this subplot, Mai is on the way back – nothing is consequential. Sure, this could just be a version of Milton’s stories. But how far can that argument carry the film?

I am aware that most of my critiques of narrative come from Eurocentric standards. But other films have not followed the three-act structure, have not emphasised character, and filmmaking techniques not necessarily expertly done, and have still succeeded – this is why we have one-take wonders like Stay Awake Be Ready (2019, dir. Pham Thien An), which convey so much about the human condition without being conventional. The purpose of this film is entirely different. An action crime drama, it needs some form of coherent structure to keep it afloat – think of Memento (2000, dir. Christopher Nolan), with its own ambitious structure! Here, the narrative, dialogue, and action simply do not make the cut.

Sadly, Mai’s breakdown also points to a larger issue of representation. The women in the film are reduced to sex objects or are bound to the domestic sphere. They swoon to men or become subservient to their egos, and it is no surprise that none find any role in the film other than as the protagonist’s accessory. And speaking of problematic representation, Art, one of the few gay characters in the film, is written as if a 14-year-old straight girl who just watched an episode of Drag Race thought that the inclusion of such a character would be good upholstering, and included it in the script. His dialogue is overly gilded with effeminate mannerisms and speech-acts – the most overt signifier of his queerness. He is narcissistic, entitled, dramatic and cowardly; it is this blend of ‘queerness’ that gets him killed. Not to say that queer characters must always be portrayed positively – only that as a queer person myself, I find it sickening when such characters are reduced to limp-wristed, one-dimensional, narcissistic stereotypes.

For all its goals, Red ultimately succumbs to the trappings of hubris and misrepresentation. The basic elements are all there – I’m sure handled differently it would have been a potentially great film. The sad truth is, it’s one of the most mind-numbing films I’ve watched in recent memory. It was not worth my two hours, and if the above bothers you, it won’t be for you either.

Written by Ethan Kan
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