REVIEW | ‘Respeto’ and the power of a well-defined setting

September 22, 2017 - 6:19 AM
Abra and Kate Alejandrino in 'Respeto.'

Among the poorest of the poor in the city of Pandacan, an aspiring rapper named Hendrix is in the midst of being swallowed whole by circumstance.

An orphan, he lives with his sister Connie and her boyfriend Mando, a drug pusher. There is no evidence that he goes to school and he sidelines making deliveries for Mando. All of his money goes to watching underground rap battles and Hendrix is itching to make a name for himself as a master of rhymes and verse.

In the toughest and most unforgiving of neighborhoods, rap becomes an expression of survival. The mastery of rhyme, language, quick wit, and a keen perception of the world around them becomes a status symbol in a world where the comforts of life are barely within reach.

At its heart, “Respeto” is a film about Hendrix and his drive to become a rapper of note; to be treated with the titular respect of the people in the world around him. But as Hendrix uses the drug money he has to return to Mando to watch a rap battle, he is beaten up and forced to repay his sister’s boyfriend by any means necessary.

He attempts to rob a second-hand bookstore and gets caught. As punishment, he has to repair the damage done to the bookstore of Doc, who turns out to be a poet and victim of Martial Law atrocities when he was part of the rebel movement.

“Respeto” never takes the standard route. There is the story of the drugs that pervades into every aspect of these people’s lives and how Hendrix and his gang are affected by it. People they know are dying left and right and his friends talk about it jokingly and without any real drama. This is their reality.

And then there’s the story of Hendrix and his flirtations with the bar girl Candy. There’s also the uneasy relationship between Hendrix and Doc, as they try to navigate the strange connection they have. At the very core is Hendrix’s goal to use rap to gain respect from everyone who sees him as nothing more than a worthless kid.

No matter how the film twists and turns into the varying stories within “Respeto,” the film never feels scattered or trying to say too much. It is anchored completely by the film’s setting.

“Respeto” and all of its themes circle around poverty-stricken Manila facing the threat of another authoritarian regime where a drug war has turned the police into the enemy of the people. Each scene, each story resonates with each other, each element informs the other and justifies the points-of-views and perceptions of each character and their choices.

At the crux of this is Hendrix and the world he lives in and his approach to dealing with it as it parallels with Doc and Doc’s own past.

Wonderfully acted, especially by a magnetic Abra, who holds the film steadily in its place as it revolves around all these stories. Dido de la Paz is a powerful presence, an old man haunted by a past he cannot shake off.

And even Chai Fonacier and Kate Alejandrino’s supporting turns as one of Hendrix’s friends and his object of affection, Candy, respectively, are exceptional performances that help cement the reality of this world.

Director Treb Monteras manages to explore the humanity of this world without ever feeling exploitative or manipulative in his direction. There is so much love for the world and despite the grittiness, there is still joy and humor as well as equal parts darkness and danger.

There are no apologies here or excuses. “Respeto” shows us that this world is what it is because of the circumstances that shaped it. With such a well-defined setting, the characters can act in the most unexpected ways but still ring true, the plot twists and turns, and the themes are many but everything is held together because the reality is set.

“Respeto” is a well-crafted movie with a serious punch.