Cinema One Originals 2010: LIFE SENTENCE Review



An illusion is brilliantly hatched. Playing alongside each other are two storylines, seemingly separated by time and an immense change in the character of Pol (Pen Medina), a jailed convict who doubles as an assassin for the jail warden (Archi Adamos). The illusion is cleverly maintained, at least up until the cleverness wears off and the need for exposition becomes imminent. The film opens with Pol's unflinching assassination of a man, briskly revealing in a sequence so judiciously executed Pol as a man of hollow virtues. Yet, Pol, noticeably aged, is also seen communing with a group of other retirees, revealing a character that is opposite the ruthless man of the opening sequence. The gargantuan distinctions between the two Pols of the supposed two storylines of Michael Angelo Dagñalan's Layang Bilanggo (Life Sentence) are so gargantuan, that it is impossible not to be intrigued by what could have converted Pol the obedient killer into Pol the gentle geriatric.

 

Given that the two storylines differ in mood and style, since the storyline involving Pol the killer is unabashed in its use of violence and portrayal of reform institutions as ridden with corruption and exploitation while the storyline involving Pol the elderly seems to be a quiet portraiture of people living out the twilight of their lives, the film naturally shifts pacing, requiring a bit of diligence and skill from the director. Thankfully, Dagñalan mostly juggles the two storylines with understated efficiency. Yet when Dagñalan lets go of the conceit, revealing that Pol's peaceful and reformed presence in the home for the elderly is but a sham for his next mission as an assassin, the film loses a vital piece of what makes it momentarily poignant, the endearing sincerity and simplicity of a life redeemed from what seems to be an inescapable hell.

 

Layang Bilanggo suffers ultimately because it is told with that conceit in mind. It cheapens the emotions sought to be fleshed out, putting focus more on the ingenuity of the storytelling than the story itself. The story itself though is not as notable as it thinks it is. It's primarily a tale of redemption of a father who left his wife and daughter decades ago and now attempts to reconnect with her without revealing himself while waiting to eliminate his next target, a journalist who is researching about corruption within the prison system. There are certainly moments where the emotional heft that is being carried by Pol is exposed for some onscreen poignancy. With the help of the consistently believable portrayals of Medina and Miriam Quiambao as the criminal father and his daughter, respectively, Dagñalan manages to sustain a breath of the familiar in a story that wraps itself in blatant contrivances.

 

The attempts at familiarity, however, are nowhere near noble or novel, because they are based incidentally on melodramatic turns and character motivations that are often used to the point of garnering cliché status. The perfunctory anecdotes in the home for the aged make up for all the film's many faults, puncturing the convoluted main storyline with much-needed humanity. Jaime Fabregas, who plays a retired Metrocom officer who ironically becomes Pol's best friend in the home for the aged and later in the film, dons a grandmother's garb while wielding a high-powered armament, adds much-needed levity to the mostly serious and moribund affair. Thus, despite the plentiful excesses in Dagñalan's scripting and directing, one cannot simply take away the fact that Layang Bilanggo works, even if only as a random curiosity.


(Cross-published in Lessons from the School of Inattention.)

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