A Tarantino-Inspired Filipino Filmmaker Takes on Duterte’s ‘Death Squads’

‘Manila Death Squad’ is funny and beautiful—until it gets super dark.
June 20, 2018, 7:08pm

A promising young filmmaker perfectly toes the line between fun filmmaking and bleak subject matter in his colorful new short film, Manila Death Squad.

Dean C. Marcial was born in the Philippines and raised in the United States. He returned to his family’s country with nothing but a script to take on the troubling phenomena of vigilante death squads that the Human Rights Watch reports have murdered over 12,000 people since Rodrigo Duterte was elected president in 2016.

Marcial tackles the disturbing issue with style and taste. He gives the short a rosy bar glow with energetic, likable characters who look at Instagram, take selfies, and alternate between Tagalog and English. “It'd be easy to make a movie that moralized what we already knew: extrajudicial killing is wrong, and wars on drugs don't work,” he told VICE. “But it's a lot harder to confront the why and how—how did we get here, electing strongmen all over the world? Why did we let it happen? How complicit are we?”

The story is a vibrant war of words and wits between an American journalist named Olivia (Annicka Dolonius) and a deadly group of homicidal vigilantes led by the flamboyant Rufio (Sid Lucero). Marcial sourced all the actors and production staff from the Philippines and scored the film with Pinoy rock act Flying Ipis. He described his aesthetic as “pop-y eye candy with strobe-y ADHD visuals… mixed with underground comic book aesthetics and a Hanna-Barbera soundboard.”

Marcial is inspired by plenty of western filmmaking, like Quentin Tarantino’s story structure, Edgar Wright’s clever editing, and Aaron Sorkin’s whip-fast dialogue. But he also developed the look and mood with Lino Brocka's Oropronobis in mind, and the bittersweet tone from Mike DeLeon's Batch '81. In a callback to Italian filmmakers like Sergio Leone, he calls the style “Sweet Spaghetti Western” after a popular Filipino noodle dish.

Manila Death Squad is flashy and fun, but the final moments are a punch in the gut. The characters transform from dark-humored swashbucklers who play drinking games and take selfies into the death squad in the title. The dramatic change in tone is all part of Marcial's plan to bring this distant issue close to home for Americans.

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