Graceland is a thrilling crime drama film set in Manila about Marlon Villar, the longtime chauffeur of corrupt politician Manuel Chango. Marlon (played by Arnold Reyes) gets entangled in a kidnapping case gone wrong after his daughter was accidentally taken instead of Chango’s. What ensues is a spiral of events that test each character’s moral compass, where the conventional notion of “good vs. bad” is blurred.
Written and directed by New-York based Filipino director Ron Morales (Santa Mesa), the film has received an audience award and a positive response from critics at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival, where it made its world premiere. Tickets for its screening were sold out at Montreal’s Fantasia Film Festival, and it’s set to screen later this month at Austin’s Fantastic Fest and The Athens International Film Festival.
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Originally, the story that Ron wanted to make was about a group of Filipino shamans living in the middle islands. However, while conducting his research, he stumbled upon stories of organ trafficking, kidnapping and prostitution – issues that are grippingly real and occur in the underbellies of certain areas around the country. And that was the story Graceland was set to tell. Apart from the richly configured plot, much of the film’s charisma lies in the complexity of its characters and how well each actor portrays his or her role.
While some films clearly define the protagonist and antagonist for the audience to sympathize with or despise, Graceland’s dualistic characters make that part captivatingly difficult. "For the most part, I just try to bring the actors as close to the place where they feel comfortable," said Morales in an interview during the film’s Manila premiere at Robinsons Galleria last September 12, when asked how he had prepped the actors for the intensity of their roles. Coupled with some workshops and rehearsals that proved to be effective, the nuances in the actors’ performances felt natural and relatable.
While the themes used seem all too familiar in independent local films, Graceland delivers it in such a way that doesn’t dumb down the audience with cheap theatrics, over-the-top action sequences and overused one-liners. If anything, it displays the frightening reality that so-called con artists are more cunning than they’re loosely portrayed as in some films. Moreover, these supposed "bad guys" could be any regular Joe caught in a moral dilemma and driven by a motive that lies in the grey area between and beyond right and wrong. Hence the title, which pertains to the people who are falling out of grace in one way or another… and possibly how they try to regain their footing in the basic game of survival.
While it’s difficult to not get a feeling of heaviness at certain points in the film due to issues that some might find sensitive, it has enough thrill factor to appeal to a mainstream audience. When we asked Morales what he thought – or hoped – viewers would feel upon seeing the film, he said "I think – I hope they’ll feel how you guys feel."
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How we felt was unbridled delight upon seeing a film that manages to narrate a really, really good story, show the complexity of real people in very real social and personal situations, and, above all, entertain.
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