Essays

Emerging Aswangs in the Urban Landscape: Intentional Horror in Realism and the Conscious Visual Language of ‘Aswang’ (2019)

They never happened in the avenues; they always happen in the alleys.

My childhood friend lost her father because of Rodrigo Duterte’s Oplan Tokhang. I was 15 when the killings started. I saw the picture on the Facebook page of The Philippine Star. It feels different when the victim is very close to you; I couldn’t put into words what I felt when I saw them crying in the photo. I was nearly in tears. They were all familiar to me—Ate Baby*, Rona*, and the others whom I interact with every day.

This happened regularly. I would hear gunshots outside our house before going to sleep. The next day, they would find another body dead. My father thought these killings made the streets safer. I never felt that, especially when 17-year-old Kian Loyd delos Santos—someone the same age as I was at the time—was killed by the police.

That was four years ago. I stopped hearing about Duterte’s war on drugs in the news. It’s just something that would resurface from time to time. It seems we’re now desensitized from all the bloodshed, not realizing that we may have walked through pavement full of blood the night before. This is what Alyx Ayn Arumpac’s documentary debut Aswang (2019) reminded us. The killings never stopped; they just aren’t newsworthy anymore.

The film title references folk literature and native culture. The concept of aswang speaks to us on a personal level, as this is something we naturally know about. Old people use this to induce fear, and that irrational horror stayed with us. And like folktales, these morbidities in the city speak no volume of being humane. That’s why we associate it to a creature that isn’t human or animal, but a demon. 

The cramped spaces of the metro were the sites of killings; never in the glamorous urban avenues where high-rise condos were built. This is a sign that the war on drugs is a class war. It doesn’t give justice because justice isn’t about randomly taking lives and being selective in enforcing the law. This government is so obsessed with killings blaming all crimes to drugs yet always fails to attend the needs of the people. Our rights become a privilege. That’s why young boy Jomari, friend of Kian, must carry the burden when the police arrested his parents and left him with nothing. When at his age, guidance is essential. It’s clear that the system favors the rich; that’s why hope remains elusive to the oppressed. This macho-feudal society told them they are powerless. But in reality, the power is nowhere to be found but with the masses. 

The film exudes the characteristics of cinéma vérité. No nameplates; you’ll just hear their names; you’ll just hear their stories. These are what matter. From Jomari, whose feigned independence conceals his stolen innocence and childhood, to Brother Jun, who comforts bereaved relatives of the alleged state-killings. All were victims and witnesses; the film went into their lives—and stayed. 

This is what Aswang shows us. It knows that the subjects are deemed powerless, but the cinematography never made them look that way. It never looked down on them, remaining eye-level. This is a proficiency in the language of proximity which made the camera a part of the subjects. This shows the director’s awareness regarding the gap between her and Jomari. Arumpac knows that she could do something when Jomari didn’t have slippers to wear, but the dismayed journalist couldn’t do anything regarding the ‘action’ of the Commission of Human Rights on the illegal secret jail. This is a sign that the job of a journalist will always be limited, and they must do something outside of their job first to achieve justice.

The film knows what it’s going for. Its direction is clear as you will hear nothing from the aswangs in the documentary. It knows from the start that its purpose is to amplify the stories of the victims. However, the elements of horror were intentionally put there. While the political climate is a real dread, Aswang should do something more that’s encouraging as this might bring hopelessness to a lot. It should directly tell us what we should do to stop the aswang. Perhaps the film is still scared by the aswang; and this fear is valid as much as it is real.

There is hope to be found with children who can speak loudly and bluntly about how the police behave. But that they normally perceive cops as killers is disturbing; a testament to how pervasive these killings have become. Even in the children’s roleplaying game, it resonates who does these vicious slaughters of the poor in the metro. Their innocence speaks nothing but the truth. While policymakers and the privileged perceive these murders as collateral damage, children whose parents were killed just lost their childhood, something other kids have the privilege to enjoy. 

It’s odd that even though the film showed that we are a religious country, a lot still believe in the aswang. A lot still enables him to do this class war. Despite knowing that tragic stories like these exist, they remain adamant in dismissing it as urban legends.

It’s understandable if fear overpowers agitation, but the latter must come after the former. The aswangs evolved and are now living in the metro, free to ride in their luxurious cars, while one of them remains seated on a highchair. In the province, aswangs are hunted and locals make sure it suffers. The film’s ending suggests something—to stare at the eyes of aswangs with no fear. But stares will always be passive and are never enough, just like when chicks try to knock on the aswang’s non-existent conscience. We know that goodness is something that they don’t know, because they like to speak in violence. This is how we should talk to them, too: the power to kill him remains with us—together.

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