Not your everyday aswang: A review of Ang Manananggal sa Unit 23B

In the midst of smartphones and social media, the thought of Philippine mythology seems anything but bewitching. These days, it’s easy to write off certain aspects of culture as archaic and outdated, especially for a generation that grew up saying “tabi tabi po” to ward off the common duwende.

This is why attempts to trace back roots like Ang Manananggal sa Unit 23B are refreshing to see. With Ryza Cenon playing the winged protagonist, director Primo Cruz’s contemporary take on the superstitions of old is anything but ancient.

We follow Jewel, a manananggal who can’t help her thirst for blood in a palpably familiar world where the body count of a certain war on drugs rises with every passing day. She meets the forlorn Nico (Martin del Rosario), whom she catches herself slowly giving her own heart to, finding that the aftereffects of the sudden role reversal make all the difference. Down the hall, Nico goes to drastic (and sometimes illegal) lengths to make ends for him and his sickly grandmother.

Beyond its inviting plot, the film is a masterful demonstration of what Philippine cinema has grown to be in 2017, and what it still can be. The scintillating, neon-bathed visuals ala Nerve (2016) are excellent, enveloping in melancholy an intimate look at Jewel’s life. We bear tender witness to the range of this otherworldly creature’s emotions: loneliness, love, beauty, and yearning, oftentimes all at once.

A sight for sore eyes amidst the telenovelas of today, moviegoers will be more than pleased to find that Cruz refused to lean on the cliches of kilig to demonstrate the forbidden love team’s blossoming relationship. He doesn’t abandon his millennial audience either, blanketing Jewel’s story under the tunes of BP Valenzuela, Taken by Cars and Reese Lansangan, to name a few, and further heightening the wistful air surrounding Jewel and her uncertain future.

At its core, Manananggal is a story of inner (and outer) demons and the internal conflict that comes with fighting them. Our protagonist doesn’t come off as the stuff of nightmares, rather she is depicted as intensely human: someone who bleeds the same blood we do instead of feeding on it. Despite the growing list of victims, you cannot help but be on Jewel’s side, rooting for her as she wrestles with herself. The word manananggal roughly translates to “one who separates itself,” but by the time Jewel’s gem of a story concludes, separation becomes something of a struggle.

Rating: 5/5

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