Sure we’ll grant that Pepe Diokno’s first feature-length film, Engkwentro, is daringly conceived. Everything is orchestrated in such a way that the story wraps up in a handful of takes, marshalled in a surprisingly brief running time. Sure, too, it has its metaphors right: characters inhabit the locale of the story – the shantytown of an unnamed city – like small trapped animals in a terrarium. We get that much. But these descriptions are misleading and hollow: Engkwentro is, we must say in advance, a well-envisioned but callowly executed film.
Engkwentro is prefaced with the sobering facts in an epigraph detailing the number of extra-judicial executions perpetrated by death squads in the Philippines: 814 victims in the last decade or so – mostly at the expense of petty criminals. The film quickly opens in a slum where Richard, a small-time gangster, is anxious to raise money for his escape after word gets around that he has been marked for execution by the vigilantes. Jenny-Jane, his girlfriend, is amenable to his plan and has agreed to get away with him. Richard, however, can’t seem to get through to his younger brother to join them. He is slowly falling in with the wrong crowd, in particular, the gang of Tomas, who also happens to be Richard’s rival in love. Tomas is not about to become a cardboard nemesis for Richard.
Engkwentro, thankfully, mercifully, ends in almost exactly an hour. Produced, written and directed by Diokno, it is meant to be a kinetic and restive ride that would have worn out its welcome had it gone on too long, what with the director’s decision to use handheld cameras. But this is also perhaps its weakness: there seems little time to individualize its characters. The cameras seem consumed to trace all the dead-end alleyways of the slums, the unlit, pitch-dark nights, and the rattling textures of corrugated rooftops. Diokno and his cinematographer seem too caught up with their whiz-bang ethic for this film at the expense of story and characterization. Contrary to advance write-ups, Engkwentro is not done in a single take. No, Sokurov’s Russian Ark has no rival at the moment.
Perhaps the main achievement that Engkwentro will be known for will not be its technical bravura and wizardry but its sociopolitical commentary (the references are suspiciously familiar that it borders on being propaganda against Rodrigo Duterte, the mayor of Davao City.) Superimposed on the soundtrack throughout the film are excerpts from the political speeches of the city mayor speaking in an unknown dialect, who vows to fight criminality with an iron hand and usher in progress. These speeches are edited and interwoven so wittily and ingeniously that they sound frighteningly like maniacal, self-incriminating confessions of a madman, recalling Hitler and the rest of his speechifying Nazi henchmen. Their exhortations for a new society (rubbed in by ‘Bagong Lipunan,’ that Marcosian soundtrack, at the end) contrast grimly and humorlessly with what goes on in the slums.
Most of Engkwentro, however, has been an afterthought. Some scenes look severely underlit – this might be the cinematographer’s contribution to create a spiritually dark environment for this hell on earth. Shot supposedly in high definition, some scenes just take place in the dark as the cinematographer, going a la intrepid documentarist, tries to catch up with the warring gangsters chasing after each other in the narrow mazes of the slums. Combined with its other visual and narrative deficiencies, Engkwentro comes close to being unwatchable. Shots are fired, some characters fall dead, and we simply shrug our shoulders. We are almost glad that it ended so soon.