Monday, August 28, 2017

Vampariah – review

Director: Matthew Abaya

Release date: 2016

Contains spoilers

Vampariah is a Filipino/American production and is based, I understand, on director Matthew Abaya's earlier short, entitled Bampinay. It carries its cultural reference through the central vampire in the film – the aswang. The aswang can sometimes be a confusing concept and is often depicted as a shape shifting creature with a desire for human flesh & blood.

The aswang in this would actually be more accurately named as a manananggal – being the self-segmenting sucker of viscera, which can unfurl bat like wings and fly. However, the term aswang is not incorrect as aswang is more properly an overarching term for the various monsters of Filipino mythology and the manananggal is therefore a form of aswang.

Aswang in flight
The film begins with a brief introduction to the aswang, suggesting that they used to be revered by, and protectors of, humanity. However there was a betrayal and they became hated. They leave their legs behind when taking on their predatory form and it is re-union with their legs that allow them to walk in daylight (fail to return to their legs and the sun will destroy them). We also hear from Mahal (Kelly Lou Dennis), our primary protagonist, who is part of a society of undead hunters – undead in this being a collective term for the whole panoply of vampire species.

Jeffrey Lei as Mr Fang
The hunters have access to an impressive array of weaponry and technology. Most vampires can be destroyed through an assault to the head or heart. The prime field operative is Marcus Kilmore (Scott Mathison) who, we later discover, is a bit of a dick. When we meet Mahal she is out in the field hunting down a kyonsi called Mr Fang (Jeffrey Lei). She is contacted by HD (Roberto Divina) who has a line on an aswang attack for her – Mahal obsessed with tracking down the creature who killed her father. He reminds her that the kyonsi isn’t very bright and can be distracted with chi – she is able to use an implement to channel said energy.

smart wear
Mr Fang shows us an underlying level of humour within the film, done deliberately with an absurdist air and utilising some wonderfully amusing facial expressions by Lei. The kyonsi would seem to be owned by the hunters but often gets loose. Mahal discovers that the star (Jason Bustos) and crew of a TV cryptid hunter show have been killed in the Philippines whilst searching out the legendary aswang. Her boss, Michele Kilman (Arlene Joie Deleon), doesn’t want her out there – the aswang are notoriously difficult to kill and dangerous – but also does not order her back.

dead van driver
When she examines the body of the TV hunter she is confronted by his ghost – this is her gift, or her curse for that matter, as she is able to see the dead but they see her as their killer and react accordingly. She also discovers that the aswang was not a Philippines resident but had travelled there from the States. The aswang is Bampinay (Aureen Almario) and has already returned to America. We see her being cat-called by a van driver and her disembowelling him with her tongue. Of course Mahal will eventually meet Bampinay and things will not go as she expects…

Bampinay dines with a victim
Abaya wrote as well as directed the film and there is an entire sub-text he adds in about cultural identity. For instance, Kilman poses as a news-anchor and uses that platform to spew a (US) right-wing anti-immigration rhetoric, which sits uneasily with her Asian ethnicity. Of course, the use of the vampire as both the Other and the focus for the demonization of immigrants are classic tropes within the genre. The transplanting of the Filipino vampire-type into America and subsequently building an audience sympathy for said vampire provides an interesting and perversive narrative. However, beyond anything else he is building a good, old-fashioned adventure.

Kelly Lou Dennis as mahal
This is, then, very ambitious – the use of various effects for the gear the hunters use (including using smart wear to view holographic communications, drones and various weaponry) and the manananggal effects are ambitious given the budget, but for the most part work quite well. There is scope in the world created to use a variety of undead types and we get a name check for the chupacabra, a horde of experimental chi-controlled zombies and the aforementioned kyonsi, as well as the aswang. Note, with the vampire types we have other minority ethnic related myths (and a Chinese aspect to the zombies given the use of chi in their control), feeding into their narrative surrogacy for the immigrant.

The story is ambitious also, but perhaps could have done with lingering longer on certain narrative aspects. The female leads all did well and, in the main, the male characters are secondary and only lightly sketched, which again was quite a subversive direction for the film and welcomed. The film gets quite bloody at times and perhaps had a graphic novel feel in places, which again worked to stave off the impact of a low end budget. I really rather enjoyed this one. 6.5 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.

The film's homepage is here.

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