When I first saw Sleepless (2015) back in college, I thought it was a revelation. Telling the story of two call center agents working the graveyard shift finding themselves no longer able to sleep through the night, Prime Cruz delivered what we’d long accepted Filipino cinema couldn’t: a confidently-paced storyline that’s willing to dictate its own terms, masterfully shot and graded scenes of nocturnal Manila, and well-acted characters that jump out alive from the big screen. (Also, it definitely helped that the film starred Dominic Roco, who is probably by now the most quietly charming actor working this side of the Pacific.) I came out of the cinema an immediate convert to Cruz’s genius, and could only lament that his working in the indie community meant that his films could only be given limited screenings and even limited distribution.
Now seeing Ang Manananggal sa Unit 23B (2016), I am even more convinced that Cruz is no fluke. Here, he finds a story that fits his aesthetic vocabulary perfectly, even better than in Sleepless. Manananggal tells the story of Jewel (Ryza Cenon), a young woman living a solitary life in Unit 23B of an apartment building in some forgotten corner of the city. When the film opens, new neighbors have just moved into the unit across the hall from her, down-and-out guy Nico (Martin Del Rosario) and his lovable grandmother. Both Nico and Jewel are introduced as outcasts, and the two immediately form a bond in their shared solitude.
Nocturnal shots – by now something that Cruz has mastered – fill much of the film’s runtime: breathless frames of noodle shops, apartment windows, even indoor dining sets being encircled and encroached upon by the ever-present darkness, teasing the mysteries that lurk within. In one of my favorite sequences, Nico gets beaten up at a bar, and is discovered by Jewel lying wounded and almost lifeless by the highway. Jewel, meek and small-framed as she is, drags him through a jeepney ride, across hallways, back into her unit to recuperate. Nico lying weak and helpless in her bed, ready for the taking, Jewel struggles to contain the hunger that the sight of his body awakens in her.
Yes there is a literal manananggal in this story. A staple of Filipino folklore, the manananggal is an aswang or monster often taking the form of a female human. When a manananggal goes out to hunt, it severs its entire upper torso from the rest of its body and sprouts huge, bat-like wings on its back, in order to fly around in the cover of darkness. Cruz takes some liberties with the folklore, however: instead of feeding on couples or pregnant women, Jewel as a manananggal preys on horny men, picking them up at bars and doing the killing right at the climax of their intercourse. And, instead of blood or liver (which would actually have been more faithful to how Filipino folklores often go), she cuts through their chests and feeds on their hearts.
That Jewel is a manananggal is no secret for the viewer. Early into the film, after their first meeting, she and Nico share a brief moment on the rooftop of their building, eating balut (steamed partially-fertilized duck egg, a local delicacy that apparently Americans find repulsive). The conversation segues into eating frogs, which brings Nico to a warmly childish conclusion: if everything that’s considered unusual to eat tastes like chicken, then maybe humans – too – taste like chicken. Jewel smirks.
This small scene at the beginning captures very well the tone the film takes for the rest of its runtime: anxious, lurid and sweet. As Nico finds himself increasingly drawn to the mysterious tenant of Unit 23B, Jewel struggles to cope with her deepening attraction for him and the hunger she feels within.
Jewel only eats men’s hearts and leaves the rest to be found by the police. Disregarding questions of symbolism, I think that’s a huge waste of meat and game potential. This is why Jollibee still serves chicken breasts even though we all know only psychopaths eat those. Going for the heart and preserving what’s rest for later might be the wiser choice. At the same time, she’d greatly increase her chances of a successful hunt if she started going after other women too.
That scene in the climax, where Jewel, lying in her underwear on her bed transforms into the mananggal looks like a full minute of an intense masturbation scene. We cannot not ignore the sexualization that happens there.
Also, on the shot of Jewel’s back opening up and sprouting her manananggal wings, the cut on her back looked unmistakeably like vagina. I know I’m not alone in this.