Festivals, Reviews

QCinema 2019: ‘UnTrue’ – Lies, guilt, and romance

The film opens with a shot of a small statue of a woman holding a bowl of grapes on one hand and a sword on the other. We later learn that it is a miniature version of the Kartlis Deda, a huge monument in Georgia’s capital city of Tbilisi that greets visitors upon their arrival, assessing if they are a friend or a foe and handing them either the grapes or the sword accordingly. In Sigrid Andrea Bernardo’s genre-bending film, she applies this duality to every human being, suggesting that we always give either “grapes” or “sword” to each new person that we encounter. Often, however, we deliberately obscure what kind of gift we are giving, letting only the passage of time reveal it to the other person.

And what better way to present this theme than with love? The context itself is familiar to Philippine cinema: two lost souls, Mara (Cristine Reyes) and Joachim (Xian Lim) in a foreign land, finding refuge in each other and developing a rather unusual love affair. But the quick progression of their relationship casts doubts into the veracity of either character’s feelings for the other, implying that something dark and sinister might be lay beneath the romantic facade. Bernardo subverts the usual OFW trope, adding a psychological twist of almost Kafkaesque quality. What starts off as mere isolation develops into alienation and the clashing versions of truth slowly turn into a more surreal reconfiguration of Mara and Joachim’s minds. There’s existential anxiety, deep-seated guilt, lies that are true and truths that are false, all brewing in a wild concoction of thriller, violence, and drama.

Eventually, the film travails a more expository path, but even when the mysteries are slowly falling apart, Bernardo still somehow maintains the chilling, ghostly atmosphere of the film. Part of it is because of the dark Georgian backdrop, indifferent to the problems faced by Mara and Joachim. The desaturated color palette enhances the dread and creates a cognitive dissonance with the supposedly romantic encounters. This is further complemented by Roberto Yñiguez’s effectively disorienting camerawork that snakes its way into the depths of the protagonists’ minds. It was noticeable that great thought was put into planning how to shoot each sequence, making sure that every frame fuels the film’s madness and the audience’s curiosity. Much praise must also be given to the eerie sound design that puts us in Mara’s and Joachim’s positions, letting us hear the voices in their heads and making us question our own perceptions of reality.

Yet despite its initial post-truth impression, the film presents an objective truth. The he-said-she-said premise makes up for a good foundation, but it was the film’s decision to go beyond this gimmick that eventually highlights its strength. Granted, how Bernardo executed this could have used a bit more restraint, but every time she peels off a narrative layer, I kept wanting to know more. This is nothing but a testament to Bernardo’s excellent screenplay and storytelling instincts, knowing when to drop narrative clues and just how much of the truth we need to know at a particular moment. This results in a rollercoaster ride of emotions, full of surprising turns that keeps the audience at the edge of their seats.

But perhaps the most exciting part of the entire film is its insights on how power relations affect and shape modern relationships. Although it uses the gender lens in its examination, to say that the film is simply a critique of patriarchy would be a shallow analysis on the complexity of the politics portrayed in it. Rather, a more accurate description would probably be a deconstruction of dominance and subordination, manipulation and consent, vulnerability and abuse. Bernardo challenges our moralities: is it ever acceptable to be abusive in relationships? Is the perpetuation of a cycle of violence ever justified? At some points, the film even touches on the tricky subject of mental health. In a world as crazy as ours, is succumbing to its insanity the only way to cope and survive?

For all the film’s philosophical musings, it would have been easy to get lost in all its messages and metaphors. Thankfully, Cristine Reyes and Xian Lim ground the film into relatable and empathetic territory, their performances showing virtuosic mastery of their craft. Reyes, to whom all the film’s answers are anchored, was especially convincing in her portrayal of Mara in varying levels of madness. She adapts so fluidly to the needs of her character, seamlessly connecting her different personalities depending on whose perspective of the story is being told. Such is the mark of an actress in perfect control of her artistry.

Indeed, UnTrue is a rare gem in Philippine cinema that offers an unsanitized and darkly unique story of romance. It is the type of film that will keep you guessing until the very end and will stay in your mind for the days to come.

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