Filipino language films don’t get as much recognition in the United States as Chinese or Japanese films. This is probably mainly due to a martial art that gets little recognition, but also because not much is known about the Philippines in general beyond the negative stereotypes of poverty and prostitution. While Graceland does reinforce those stereotypes, it also shows that the Philippines is capable of turning out excellent cinema, and that a good story told well speaks a universal language.
Marlon Villar (Arnold Reyes) is down on his luck. He’s a lowly chauffeur to a pedophilic politician (Menggie Cobarrubias), and he’s trying to raise his daughter alone, because his wife is severely ill, and in need of an organ donor. Then, as if Marlon’s luck couldn’t get any worse, while driving his own daughter and the politician’s daughter home, he’s assaulted by kidnappers who take Marlon’s daughter by mistake, demanding a hefty ransom from the politician. With his daughter’s life hanging in the balance, Marlon must make impossible choices if he wants to see her alive again.
All things considered, at its core, Graceland is simply a solid, satisfying story, which is vital for any film that doesn’t have the budget that modern audiences expect. Instead, the filmmakers rely on a thrilling plot, competent acting and engaging dialogue to keep viewers interested. Mistaken identity kidnappings are perhaps not wholly original movie plots, but its execution and story context here feel fresh and new. Watching Marlon’s world spiral out of control as he’s continually squeezed between the kidnappers’ demands and the brutal police trying to get to the truth adds the right amount of tension throughout. And, of course, Marlon himself is a fantastically sympathetic character. It’s wonderful to see him at first wilt under the pressure of the situation, but then find his strength upon hearing the cries of his child on the other end of a phone call. Everything else is just gravy. And while any film can always use more spit and polish, there’s nothing in Graceland that looks bad or poorly done.
To be sure, this is a gritty story. Any film that focuses heavily on child prostitution can’t help but be seedy. Graceland gives the topic the attention it deserves, and is unflinching about its task. Seeing an observation room full of barely teenage girls dressed in numbered school girl uniforms for Johns to select them easier for sex is revolting on a visceral level. Watching one of those too-young girls strip down to nothing and ask two men which one is first will speak to all the nameless fears parents have regarding their own daughters. There’s nothing that should make the average moviegoer throw anything at the screen in disgust, but they will be moved by what they see.
There’s little in the way of artistic value in the visuals of the film. That’s to say that most of the shots are utilitarian and get the job done, illustrating only important information, and minimizing audience manipulation. This choice, probably borne from production realities, only serves to heighten the realism of the film, helping audiences truly feel like they’re part of what’s happening in the movie.
In many ways, Graceland is a typical crime-thriller, with cliché characters and locales, giving audiences exactly what they expect. There are twists and turns, betrayal and deceit. There’s a hardnosed cop, a corrupt politician, ruthless bad guys and a stalwart hero who will stop at nothing to get a loved one back. Graceland isn’t going to break any molds, but it doesn’t have to either. It’s enough that this story takes place in a region audiences don’t get much cinema from, with faces not seen often enough on American screens. It’s definitely worth checking out.