Well It's Not About Elvis
"Graceland" (opening April 26 at Reading Gaslamp and Varmel Mountain Theaters for one week) has nothing to do with The King. It's a Philippine thriller that mixes melodrama with complex moral questions.
Two things to note about the Philippines when looking at its cinema: one, well over half the country is Catholic, and two, it has a long and erratic film history. Most recently the Filipino film industry, like so many in countries around the globe, suffered at the local box office against the competition coming from the U.S. So Filipino studios emphasize making films with commercial potential in the hopes of staying successful. So what do you get from a country that is mostly Catholic and trying to keep its film industry alive? Well in the Philippines, the answer is melodramas. If Hong Kong is defined by action, the Philippines is defined by stories about regular people coping with with problems that tend to be highly emotional, family oriented, and often raising questions of responsibility.
"Graceland" is billed as a thriller and while the story involves kidnapping, violence, and murder, it is also very much a melodrama. Marlon (Arnold Reyes) is a driver for a politician who has sex with underage girls. Marlon also has a sick wife in desperate need of an organ transplant. When the politician gets in hot water for his illicit affairs, he fires Marlon and blames his driver for exposing his infidelities to the public. His last duty is to pick up his ex-boss' daughter and drive the girl along with his own daughter home. But along the way, kidnappers attack and demand ransom from the politician. How could things possibly get worse? Well they do.
The film is well crafted with solid production values and sincere if a little emotionally overcharged acting. Writer/director/cinematographer/editor Ron Morales keeps the film moving briskly as he keeping raising the emotional ante. The one thing he does well is create a moral gray zone where we find people who seem good sometimes doing bad things for the best reasons. In that respect it calls to mind Park Chan Wook's "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance." But while Park elevated his film to epic tragedy, Morales keeps his wallowing in slick melodrama.
""Graceland" (unrated and in Tagalog with English subtitles) is a compelling film and your ability to enjoy it will depend on how much emotional manipulation and melodrama you can take before pushing back. The film does carry some social and political commentary, and perhaps taking a cue from Catholicism, it suggests that we must all take responsibility for our actions and the choices we make. All in all, though, it points to a positive new direction of Filipino cinema and suggests that maybe more of their films will be ready for export.
Companion viewing: "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance," "The Crying Ladies," "Moral"