Positioned within the genre of horror film, Ang Tulay ng San Sebastian (Alvin Yapan, 2016) opens on an ominous note. The tale takes place, after all, on a Good Friday: that one day of the Lenten season when, in Philippine folk Catholicism, malevolent spirits are most manifest.
A nurse (Francis) and an ambulance driver (Bong), respectively played by Sandino Martin and Joem Bascon, are returning home to the province after bringing a patient to Manila for surgery. As darkness settles in during the ride, the tired and sleep-deprived pair amuse themselves by sharing versions of ghost stories, superstitions and urban legends. Their idle exchanges drift between weary recollections and irreverent banter, drifting away from the whispered weight of their ward’s parting warning: take care.
Their journey comes to sudden stop before a rural bridge called San Sebastian, where a series of unfortunate events unfold in quick succession. As midnight approaches, the pair attempt to escape the vicinity, as their tales, one by one, spring to life and spiral out of control.
The film begins with a productive note of tension through the use of recurring motifs during the first half. Upon reaching the bridge, however, this cohesiveness disintegrates and is dispersed through a pastiche of malevolent tropes: apparitions solitary and processional, mendicant ghouls, killers of various persuasions, undead monsters, and encounters with the diabolic.
The technical execution of the story, similarly, spans a broad range of merits and demerits. The film, for instance, has been panned in the press for its incredulously awkward execution of CGI effects. On the other hand, it is also notable for its convincing employment of color grading to simulate the night scenes wherein the story unfolds.
Such visual unevenness is threaded through and overridden by its notable performances. Martin and Bascon effectively portray complementary roles as a duo, highlighting the psychological tension and dilemmas that fear draws out in the individual. The film’s seamless wielding of sound and music also preserves and prolongs the suspense established early on in the narrative. Fresh aural juxtapositions and counterpoints arise with elements such as the original musical score using the traditional Japanese koto, the mournful dirge of a local marching band, and ambient sounds by teeming presences beyond the bridge.
The work has much to offer beyond its surreal narrative and technical exploration. Ang Tulay ng San Sebastian and other similar productions underscore how, on a larger and longer scale of practice, the genre of Philippine horror film has traditionally appropriated influences from folklore and history, superstition and urban legend. This filmic fascination with the multo, aswang and other supernatural beings, for instance, can be seen throughout early cinematic productions—Ang Aswang (1933), the first talking picture produced in the Philippines, is one often cited pre-war example—to more current releases such as the Shake, Rattle and Roll franchise flourishing since the 1980s.
It is interesting that Yapan chooses the night of Good Friday as the opportune moment to reenact this tendency. The day marking Christ’s death, here, becomes a portal for the performative resurrection of folkloric figures. These residual and resistant presences, delegitimized during the phases of colonial assimilation and forced modernity, still lurk in the borders between city and province: in roadsides, rivers and forests untouched by light and infrastructural expansion.
On the other hand, it is also noted that the genre of horror is also fertile ground for the perpetuation and propagation of problematic dichotomies—between folklore and modernity, the old and the new, countryside and metropolis, superstition and reason, for instance. The YCC took note of this tendency before in the publication Sining ng Sineng Filipino (2009), noting the prevalence of such in films of the past decade:
“Nitong mga huling taon ay kapansin-pansin ang pagbibigay-tuon sa mga tinataguriang “modernong” kabataan na “nagbabakasyon” sa probinsiya upang sinasadya o di-sinasadyang harapin ang makaluma subalit konteporaneoung mundo ng mga aswang at maligno, ng mga espirito at totoong tao, ng hiwaga at mga lantad na realidad,..Sa mga sineng ito, ang kababalaghan ay idinidikit sa mga liblib na lugar, at ang mga lugar na ito ay mga lunan ng adventure o “happening” ng mga sinasabing makabagong kabataan. Mahalagang pag-aralan ang ginagawang makitid at simplistikong paghahati ng moderno at tradisyunal, ng luma at bago.”
Does the film Ang Tulay ng San Sebastian go the route of mirroring such binaries, in this tale of a rural bridge? Perhaps, but not entirely: for while it adapts the surface trappings of the genre, it also consciously introduces rogue elements to alter its configurations on a more structural level.
For one, that the characters are not clueless city slickers hieing off to some adventure in the unknown hinterlands, but are instead locals returning home to the province and finding themselves in an inescapable portal casts some sense of psychological ambiguity to their subject position. The transition from metropolis to provincial highway should be familiar territory to them but isn’t: instead, horror lies in how home and its intimate locality inexplicably slips further out of reach.
Secondly, much of the medley of supernatural characters they encounter are also derived from urban legends and true events: spectral remnants of real-tragedies for whom justice remains elusive to date. Mixed up with more ancient tales are newer apparitions stemming from the violent aftermaths of suicides, vehicular collisions, roadside hold-ups, massacres, rebellions and the like. The overall effect of such malevolent overload may also be the most redemptive quality of the film. For it underscores how beliefs from the distant past can intersect and interact with contemporary phenomenon such as vehicular collisions, crime, and militarization: some primary vehicles for present-day horror, terror and loss for the people in Philippine society.
The on-site location of the film — a Spanish colonial-era stone bridge lying parallel to a modern concrete one in Tayabas, Quezon— furthermore makes material and metaphorical the realization of how past and present run parallel to each other. The dual structure serves as both setting and symbol for the necessity of pagtawid, the act of connecting and crossing such demarcated states. This act brings one to the final point. Here, the duo’s last desperate crossing ends on an ambiguous note, concluding the journey but subtly putting into question the dawning of day and the resurrection as the final destination of it all.