Oplan Tokhang was the code name for the recent government project of inviting everyone involved in illegal drugs to come forth, confess their guilt and promise to reform themselves of their destructive habit. However, despite its noble intentions, some of those who voluntarily surrendered to this campaign actually became targets for what seemed to be cases of extra-judicial killings.
Several cinema verite-style local indie films had depicted this controversy before, either as central theme or as side vignettes. But the new movie "Watch List" by Hollywood-based director of Indian descent, Ben Rekhi, depicts these burning socio-political issues from within, following various characters actually involved in this disturbing culture of violence that pervaded the slums of Metro Manila over the past three years.
Tricycle driver Arturo Ramon (Jess Mendoza) was shot dead by "riding in tandem" killers who cornered him in one section of the slums in Barangay 120 in Caloocan City. Ironically, Turo and his wife Maria (Alessandra de Rossi) just surrendered in the Oplan Tokhang held in their community just the day before. Desperate to fend for herself and her three children, Maria volunteered herself to become the asset of police officer Ventura (Jake Macapagal) who headed the drug investigations. On her very first assignment with her partner Alvin (Art Acuna), Maria realized she did not exactly get what she bargained for.
De Rossi once again proved how she is one of the best actresses in her generation. She gave her character of Maria a sense of palpable realism such that we really felt like we were in her shoes as she made one terrible decision after the other as a result of her desperate sense of hopelessness. Like her style in her previous films, de Rossi was not one to showboat with hysterics. Her best work was quiet and internal, and we feel it all coming through the big screen.
Micko Laurente played Maria's 13-year old eldest son Mark with sensitivity. He is now four years older than when he debuted as a child actor in "Bambanti" (2016) also as the son of de Rossi's character who was also a widow. He successfully transitioned to more mature roles in this one as a vulnerable teen in a neighborhood of drug addicts. Maria's other two younger children were 9 year-old asthmatic Nina (played by Susan Coronel Malonzo) and delightful David (played by Sher Khalifa Floresta).
Everyone in the supporting cast were very well-cast, blending right into the underbelly of the slums they lived in. Jake Macapagal dripped with sinister vibes throughout as the crooked police officer Ventura. Art Acuna was so cool playing someone as insouciantly bloodthirsty as Alvin. Timothy Mabalot played the dangerously volatile character of Joel, the drug addict eldest son of Grace (Angeli Bayani), a friend of Maria's who was also a Tokhang widow. Lou Veloso was ever-dependable as Hector, a barangay official who looked out for Maria.
The cinematography was a remarkable mix of varied styles of camera work. There was one puzzling editing decision when Maria was shown to ride a motorcycle to go to a place presumably near their residence, but this was a minor quibble.
You may have heard all these Tokhang stories before and seen movies depicting the same tragic events. However, director and co-writer Rekhi combined and interwove them in a most gripping and thrilling manner. That heartbreaking final scene of powerless Maria will stick with you.
This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."