Engkwentro is Filipino film noir and social commentary rolled into one.
But instead of hard-drinking gumshoes and peroxide blondes, the film features two brothers, Richard (Felix Roco), a drug-dealing gang leader on the run from a vigilante death squad, and Raymond (Daniel Medrana), a truant schoolboy turned neophyte of a rival gang.
With his life at risk, Richard is determined to join his mother in Manila and perhaps even stay there for a few months, if only to cool off.
While plying his drug route – a move to raise cash for his trip – Richard encounters Raymond and learns that he has joined the Batang Dilim (Kids of the Dark), instead of going to school.
As part of his initiation, Raymond is instructed by the gang leader, Tomas (Zyrus Desamparado) to fetch a gun, which Richard later confiscates and returns to its previous owner for a price.
Tension mounts between the two gang leaders, eventually forcing Raymond to make a choice between his new master or his brother.
These complications end up foiling Richard’s plans, emphasizing the hopelessness, even the inability, of those who seek to leave the slums for arguably better lives.
With its quick narrative pace, Engkwentro is able to dive right into its characters’ motivations and moral ambiguities, doing away with the easy, formulaic dichotomies between good and evil, victims and suspects, masters and slaves.
To complement this steely realism, Engkwentro offers unflattering portrayals of dingy alleys and clapboard shacks located in a Davao City slum, the movie’s setting. The images are so sharp and biting you could almost smell the stench of squalor.
But at the same time, Engkwentro has no qualms about baring its political agenda.
Barely a minute or two into the production, on-screen text about the prevalence of extra-judicial murders in the country give viewers a foretaste of what to expect.
Unlike other productions that serve generous helpings of propaganda, Engkwentro manages to stay on message by focusing on elements that help move the story along.
Take the opening sequence, which is already worth more than the price of the ticket.
With the screen rendered pitch black, viewers hear someone gasping for breath. Seconds later, through flickers of light, Richard is seen running for his life.
Similar chase scenes would later be repeated, emphasizing that everyone who is anyone in the film is more or less on the run from someone – cruel cops and crooked creditors, jilted suitors and jaded friends, envious enemies and evil parents.
Meanwhile, providing an auditory backdrop to the whole film is the city mayor’s disembodied voice from a radio broadcast.
Although he continues to deny involvement in the extrajudicial murders of known criminals, the mayor – played by Celso Ad. Castillo – implicitly supports the death squad’s activities.
Unfortunately, the mayor’s spiel is too strong and too confident to be taken seriously, turning his character into a caricature.
But this inconsistency fails to distract from the overall qualities of the movie, which is a winner.
Engkwentro is dirty, gritty, and real, however anyone looks at it.
It is just about the right film to show in a country that could use a little shock therapy to jolt it back to its senses.
Engkwentro is directed by Pepe Diokno