I know. From the title alone, Pandanggo Sa Hukay (literal translation: Dance to Death) already sounds ominous. This is why audiences expect something tragic, abhorrent and terrifying to happen to lead star Iza Calzado as soon as she steps on screen. This Cinemalaya 2019 entry does deliver on the terror, but really takes its sweet time doing it.
Synopsis: Elena (Iza Calzado) is a single mom working as a midwife in Ternate, Cavite. Left with no choice, she ships out her son to the province to be taken care of by her mother so that she may apply for a job abroad and earn more to support her seven-year-old son. On the night before her interview, she returns to the lying in clinic where she works and pitches in with a delivery, only to be kidnapped by a notorious gang operating in the province.
The strength of Pandanggo sa Hukay is its consistency. From the opening to the closing sequence, screenwriter Andrian Legaspi and director Sheryl Rose Andes were sure where they wanted to start and end the film and it was a good thing to have a clear idea about where the story will go. On the flipside, filmmakers were prone to excessive dialogue that served only to lengthen the film and not really contribute to the story.
Iza Calzado pulled in a strong performance overall but the beginning where she was striving to portray a small town midwife was a bit contrived. While she tried to adopt the regional accent of Caviteñas and take on a simple barrio girl air, her natural sophistication was too overpowering that it makes her acting in the beginning quite forced.
When Pandanggo sa Hukay arrives to the kidnapping arc, it comes alive as Iza portrays the helplessness and hopelessness as the gang members terrorize her with violence, threats and sexual assault. Audiences feel her isolation as she tries, time and again, to escape, only to be foiled and be subjected to even more horrors.
I often wonder though, why indie films often see the medium as a license to let loose on the expletives. I have no problem with this especially since the scenes and characters in Pandanggo sa Hukay actually justify it. However, my problem lies with the fact that often, these actors don’t really sound genuine because it is mostly cloaked in bravado. I even want to give them lessons in the proper intonation in the use of expletives. Seriously.
Storywise, there was a part in the film that implied systemic corruption and collusion between the authorities and the Etibak Gang which I thought was a missed opportunity. Rather than focus on Elena’s personal circumstances which were already established in the first few minutes of the film, it could have been a better path to explore and underscore the reason behind rampant criminality. I think this would have worked to make a better impact for Pandanggo sa Hukay.
While I wasn’t a fan of the lengthy set up to tell the story, I was impressed by the way the message was delivered. The tragedy was presented in the film twofold — first in the way that Elena was violated and terrorized by the criminals, and second in the way that poor folk like Elena often choose to brush past these violations rather than seek justice in order to face their reality –they must make sacrifices to survive, even at the cost of their own dignity and sanity.
All in all, Pandanggo sa Hukay was a spot-on depiction the real evil — people who prey on the weak for personal gain. A system that fails to bring them to justice, just because they have become a normal part of the societal structure. And the fact that what happened to Elena could happen to anyone is a nightmare that one would not wish on one’s worst enemy. Tragic.