Movie review: Pinoy actors shine in 'Nocebo,' 'To the North'

Fred Hawson

Posted at Dec 04 2022 09:24 AM

NOCEBO

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Christine (Eva Green) was a famous designer of children's clothing. During one fashion show, a mysterious dog covered with ticks appeared before Christine. When the dog shook, one of its ticks landed on her nape. Since then, Christine began suffering from episodes of nervousness and shaking that negatively affected her ability to work, and her relationship with her husband Felix (Mark Strong) and daughter Roberta (Billie Gadsdon). 

One day, a Filipino woman named Diana (Chai Fonacier) appeared at Christine's door offering her housekeeping services. Despite having no memory at all of hiring anyone, Christine welcomed Diana in to work for them, something Felix and Roberta did not like. Aside from cooking good food, Diana also knew how folk medicinal techniques which actually improved the unusual symptoms Christine had been experiencing all this time.

A nocebo is the opposite of a placebo. A nocebo is supposed to be a neutral substance that gives a worsening effect to how a patient feels because he thought very negatively of it. I am not entirely sure there was a nocebo at work in this story because Christine actually trusted Diana's rituals and she apparently recovered because of them, and this was despite the negative opinions of her husband and daughter. 

The production went over-the-top with the voodoo, but totally sold it because of Chai Fonacier's eerie portrayal of Diana's insidious manipulation with that unnerving Visayan accent. As she did in her previous roles, Eva Green can really push complex eccentric characters like Christine to their breaking point. The reliable Mark Strong lends his support as the skeptical husband Felix, who kept getting in the way of Diana's plans.

The film took us back to the reason of how and why Diana specifically went to work at Christine's house, and this exposed some unfortunate socio-economic realities. One wonders though if this film did any favors at all to the reputation of Filipino housekeepers and nannies working all over the world right now by showing what otherworldly things Diana was capable of doing. However, as a psychological horror film, this actually worked very well. 

TO THE NORTH

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Dumitru (Nikolai Becker) was a 24-year old young man from Romania. At the port of Algeciras in the southern part of Spain, he was able to sneak onto a Taiwanese cargo vessel under Capt. Tsai (Alexandre Nguyen) destined for Canada. He was discovered by a group of Filipino crew members, namely the bosun Joel (Soliman Cruz) and his friends Allan (Bartholome "Bart" Guingona) and Bernardo (Emmanuel "Noel" Sto. Domingo). 

Being a very religious man, Joel took pity on the young man, hid him in one of the empty rooms near the engine, and would bring him food and drink that he could sneak out. However, as Dumitru's impatience and panic inside his pitch-dark solitary confinement grew in intensity, paranoia was also boiling up on board as the Filipino crewmen began suspect that their Taiwanese ship officers are already onto their big secret. 

Romanian writer-director Mihai Mincan used a variety of languages -- English, Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, Tagalog and Romanian -- to deliver this story dealing with international issues that was based on real-life events. Joel and Dumitru understood and spoke English and Spanish, but occasionally they delivered lines in their native language and this can get confusing whether the other party understood what was said or not.

The manner Mincan told his story was very intense, suffused with a constant feeling of claustrophobia whether in the darkness below deck or in the maze of containers on deck. This was achieved with all the extreme closeups by cinematographer George Chiper-Lillemark, enhanced by the film editing by Dragos Apetri. The heavy atmosphere of uncertain danger was further achieved with the suspenseful musical score of Marius Leftarache. 

The tension in those scenes of Capt. Tsai with Joel and Allan was so thick, it was suffocating -- whether it was in the young captain's sterile office, or in that rowdy karaoke night party. Nikolai Becker's desperate Dumitru can elicit conflicting emotions from anger to pity. Soliman Cruz absolutely gave it his everything in that outstanding final sequence, with his extreme inner turmoil reflected on his weathered face, wet with tears, snot and drool. 

This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."