“Ang Manananggal sa Unit 23B” by director Prime Cruz has a marvelous premise: one part horror and one part romance with touches of social commentary and women empowerment.
Unfortunately, the film never truly dives deep into these themes and stays distant from making any real statement on any of these issues. The movie, though clever and well acted, fails to maximize its narrative to deliver a film that makes a concrete stand on any of its story elements.
Not to say that “Ang Manananggal sa Unit 23B” is not enjoyable. It is very enjoyable. There are beautiful moments of cinema here, completely grounded by Ryza Cenon’s daring and committed portrayal of a young woman cursed with a hunger for human hearts.
The film overturns the manananggal folklore, presenting it more as a curse than a monstrous desire to kill. Ryza Cenon’s character, Jewel, lives in an apartment complex, watching telenovelas and longing for someone to love her despite her own very nature. There are moments of regret and guilt after every kill.
The film manages to humanize her condition but if fails to give her a world outside of it. How does she pay rent? What does she do other than watch television or hunt for food? Her character’s emotional world is complete but every other aspect of her is missing.
Her life is complicated by the arrival of a neighbour, Nico, and his grandmother, played by Martin del Rosario and Vangie Labalan, respectively. They become friends and there is attraction there but the film’s languid pace doesn’t quite bring the two to a relationship that you want to cheer for.
There’s an amazing tension of whether he’d accept her or not, if she’d eat him or not, but outside of the fact that he’s there and they talk, we don’t really see them quite falling in love yet. There is attraction, yes, but the film remains fully in its tone of horror through dark lighting and a score that always implies danger that even the direction feels like it is sabotaging the romantic aspects of the film.
Caught between a love story and a tale of horror, the film has a difficult time finding its footing. It’s not scary enough to fully be a horror film but it’s not romantic enough to be a romance. It’s somewhere in the middle, split in half, and so narratively it meanders and never quites settles. What it does is create a wonderful character study for Jewel but it offers us no real catharsis at the end.
The film also has a clever social commentary as Jewel disguises the carnage of her feeding habits by putting a sign on the bodies of her victims “Huwag tularan Pusher ako,” taking cues and making a statement on the spate of vigilante killings and how easily it is to hide your true motives in this political climate. But it’s just a tool and it never really makes any concrete statement about it.
That would have been fine except there is a scene where Nico, in order to earn money, is seen selling drugs at a club and then getting beaten up for it is never really explored again later on. It’s one scene that hangs upon the character’s identity but since the film never brings it up again, we are left to make a decision about it on our own with very little else to guide us about his true character.
The one thing I felt the film truly succeeds in is how it reinterprets the manananggal mythology. The transformation is oftentimes involuntary and carries with it a surge of sexual desire. Jewel transforms from a homely lady to a vivacious vamp, which she uses to lure her prey to private spots. She seduces them and sleeps with them before she kills them.
It’s a fascinating presentation of the power of women’s sexuality and underscores why the patriarchy would try to suppress it. A woman is a powerful thing if given free rein to be what she wants to be. Men always fall for it and are made victims by their own inability to see them wholly as they are.
“Ang Manananggal sa Unit 23B” is not a bad film. It’s enjoyable and provokes questions, but there is so much squandered potential here — as a social commentary in today’s dangerous world, as a romantic film about people who are constantly facing their demons, or a horror film about being unable to fight against your own dark urges. It all feels raw and incomplete despite its cleverness or Ryza Cenon’s committed performance.