Skilty C. Labastilla
One of the first scenes in Sherad Anthony Sanchez’s Salvage (2015) shows military men and village watchmen about to lift from a bamboo raft the body of a young man found on a lake in a rural barangay in Cagayan de Oro. The shot changes hues several times with each clicking sound and we soon realize that the camera is held by one of the characters, Neil (JC de Vera), who is still adjusting the color grading. By the time he is able to choose the right color grade, the body had been carried out of the raft. A woman who later turns out to be Melay (Jessy Mendiola), the producer of a Manila-based news team, instructs the men to repeat what they just did (meaning put the body back on the raft) because the camera did not capture it properly the first time. The men do as told. The camera then pans to the reporter, Bong (Joel Saracho), who begins his report by saying the body is another victim of a wave of killings in the area believed by villagers to be victims of a group of aswang.
The news crew, which includes make-up artist Barbie (Barbie Capacio) and van driver Manny (Karl Medina), proceeds deeper into the jungles of Cagayan de Oro to investigate the killings. They soon learn that the military is out to get them, and the rest of the film shows footage of the crew running away from the armed men.
As with most of Sanchez’s previous films, Salvage does not rely on plot to sustain viewers’ interest, rather, it engages by evoking a sense of mystery and increasing dread as it refuses to stop at pointing the finger at the military as the sole source of the protagonists’ turmoil. The jungle itself is portrayed as a twisted funhouse where random children stare blankly at the protagonists or sometimes attack them in their sleep, where hail suddenly descends on the group, where a python makes love to a clearly aroused local woman by the river, and where some power possesses the body of the cameraman. It is by the second half, when the crew find themselves trapped and desperate for a way out, that the film shifts from being a frustrating, headache-inducing, Blair Witch copycat into something transcendental, approaching the warped fever dream of a Weerasethakul or even a Lynch.
Even then, Sanchez (who also wrote the screenplay) keeps the proceedings in the Philippine context, continuing his preoccupation, fascination almost, with the militarization of the Mindanao hinterlands that began as early as Huling Balyan ng Buhi (2006), his debut feature, and continued until 2012’s Jungle Love. His jungles may be full of mysterious elements but they are also sites of infantry brigade camps far from the military center of Manila and thus have established their own norms, which may or may not include killing people just for fun (the term “salvage” as used in the film refers to the Pinoy slang for a summary execution, and viewers are made to understand that the serial killings are in fact perpetrated by the military).
But where fellow Mindanawon filmmaker Arnel Mardoquio portrays the fraught military-civilian relations in Mindanao in neorealistic terms, Sanchez conveys his commentaries in a fantastic mode and finds ways to play with digital video’s visual and aural possibilities. Salvage, for instance, is packaged as a found footage, and Sanchez and crew exert effort in manipulating the video to include glitches and sound scratches that heighten the intended mood in viewers. The last twenty breathtaking minutes, in particular, offer a masterclass in shoestring suspense filmmaking by ingenious use of camera angles and lighting, sound and film editing, and no-holds-barred acting.
With all its virtues, the film is ultimately hampered by unsympathetic characterization: it’s certainly hard to empathize with loud, annoying people as they are being chased and dragged and beaten to a pulp. If Sanchez was going for schadenfreude in wanting to punish ignorant Tagalog media people venturing into dangerous territory, he got his wish, but sadly at the expense of creating fully formed characters that viewers can relate with and root for.
Despite its shortcomings, it’s hard not to be taken by the inventiveness and cleverness of Salvage and I, for one, will eagerly await Sanchez’s next mindfuck.