Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Aswang Phenomenon – review

Director: Jordan Clark

Release date: 2009

Contains spoilers

Aswangs are, to me at least, absolutely fascinating. Like Jordan Clark I first came across them in the US movie Aswang, discovering a Philippine sourced vampire with a long extending tongue that fed on unborn babies.

The film had aspects right, but the breadth and variety of the folklore is much wider. Often female the aswang has many and varied varieties. There are aswang that turn into dogs or pigs, aswang like the manananggal that are beautiful women who segment their bodies at the waist and hunt the night on large wings.

In films such as Vampire of Quezon City the aswang is a serial killer – it is unlikely that he is a supernatural being. Aswang have even begun to have romantic movies made about them such as An Darling Kong Aswang. The truth is, for the Westener looking in, the Aswang myth(s) can be confusing, whereas for the people of the Philippines the creature(s) can seem all too real.

folklore trail
Clark’s documentary cuts through some of the confusion around the myth and explains how the variety of aswang was documented by professor Maximo D Ramos in his book Creatures of Philippine Lower Mythology (an out of print volume that has gone straight onto my wishlist), listing werewolf (or weredog) types, vampire types, witch types, ghoul types and viscera eating types all found within traditional folklore. Clark delves into the source of the name aswang and comes across a promethean myth where Aswang is a dark god who steals fire and suffers the consequences. I always find it interesting in these myth forms that the thief – be it Prometheus, Lucifer or Aswang, is portrayed as evil for bringing the spark of fire (or life or soul or knowledge) to the people as opposed to the 'good' God form who wanted to deny mankind said knowledge etc.

films start to inform myth
Clark explores a world where, over the centuries, superstitions have been exploited by the rulers in order that civil control might be maintained. Where disease has been misunderstood and the stigma of certain conditions caused supernatural labels to be attached to the sufferers. I also felt that, through the film, he sought truth and yet managed to maintain his respect of the people and their beliefs. What I found fascinating is the idea that with the Aswang and the way it has filled the consciousness of the people we can see a parallel, perhaps, with the way the western vampire was used as a scapegoat, had its regional varieties and, eventually, became shaped by artists – something that is happening with the Aswang myth.

For both folklorists and vampire fans this is an essential documentary. Now all we need is for the wealth of Philippine aswang films to start getting Western releases, as too few can be found with English subtitles. 9 out of 10.

The imdb page is here and the documentary’s homepage is here.

Bonus bit:

Janice Santos Valdez as Maria
Also on the DVD is the documovie Aswang: A Journey into Myth. This was filmed by Clark a year before and follows a young writer, Maria Villanueva (Janice Santos Valdez), as she researches a new book on hauntings in Victoria, Canada.

searching for the unnamed girl
She discovers the tale of a Filipino girl, brought as human traffic to Canada, where she was forced into prostitution. The spirit of the girl seems to haunt Maria until she passes the power she holds on to her and Maria has to travel to the Philippines and discover her roots. At the beginning of the film is a quote from Douglas H Everett that says, “There are some people who live in a dream world, and there are some who face reality; and then there are those who turn one into the other.” This is the essence of Maria’s journey.

However, as she journeys she discovers much about the aswang myths, and this is our documentary aspect. With some genuine chills in the film this is a great companion piece to the documentary. The imdb page is here.

Finally the DVD also contains the first three issues of the aswang centred “Diliman” comics – which can also be found here on artist Tobie Abad’s page.

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