Film Review: Kristo

Fighting for survival in the cage of life
Film Review : “Fighting for survival in the cage of life”

Kristo

A continuing feature of TIFF this year was the 4th annual crosscut Asia section. The aim of this section is to highlight independent films from selected Asian countries. For 2017 our featured country was the Philippines. I was only able to screen one film from this section, but it turned out to be a good one.

Despite living in Asia for the past 8 years, I have had limited experience and exposure to the Philippines and Filipino culture, including Filipino cinema. I did however know Catholicism was predominant among a large portion of the population, so for a film to be called Kristo, there would seemingly have to be some connection. Exactly what that connection would be and how it related to the world of cockfighting, I was about to find out.

Kristo is the second feature from Filipino Director/Producer HF Yambao and stars Kristofer King as our lead character, Boy. The story is a fairly simple one but contains powerful symbols and metaphors throughout. As quoted from the filmmakers own plot summary, “to provide for his family, Boy works as a cockfight bet taker by day and as a market vendor by night. This is his daily routine, until one fateful / faithful day.” While I wont get into exactly what happens on that day, it will change the lives of Boy and his family of five forever. The provided summary’s choice of wordage using both fate and faithful to describe what transpires with Boy, play into his role as a religious or Christ-like figure at times.

The film has a gritty, documentary-like feel to it. We follow Boy as he struggles to make a living for his family (wife and three young children) in the harsh, bustling, unforgiving Filipino streets. Boy’s main source of income comes from working in the equally unforgiving and brutal world of the cockfighting arena. This is partially where some of my ignorance to Filipino culture comes into play, as I had no idea Sabong or cockfighting was such a widely accepted form of entertainment and this animal brutality was accepted as a norm.

The film title Kristo refers to the title of Boy’s job as a cockfight bet taker. However from the initial shot of the film, we also learn Christ also takes a more physical representation for Boy as he is part of a group of men that take on Holy Week penance by being whipped through the streets during the festivities. We see other men in his group being nailed to crosses and strung up. While admittedly not being overly religious myself, I was still able to spot moments throughout the film where Boy takes on a Christ-like representation both literally and figuratively.

The film, while not without its flaws and a rather abrupt ending, is engaging all the way through. It takes a brutal, raw and sometimes beautiful look at the world of cock fighting. There are scenes that almost certainly contain actual cockfighting. This includes scenes of chickens being slaughtered and killed. Scenes like this would never fly (chickens, get it) in the overly conservative Hollywood of today and would horrify many unsuspected viewers. However, this unfiltered look at what it takes for our main character to survive the mean streets is part of the appeal. There are direct parallels with Boy and his cronies, fighting for survival in their world, to the roosters fighting to live in theirs. One scene in particular where Boy gets in a fight with another Kristo, he puffs up and charges at the other man, much like the birds he pits against each other.

As things turn for Boy we are left to wonder, is there really a way out of this brutally for either Boy or our chickens? The religious overtones beg the question, is their some higher power betting and playing games with Boy as he does with the roosters? Boy is given a glimmer of hope through his life with his family. His older daughter in particular is valedictorian for her primary school. Boy beams with joy for a bright future for his family. He is given a dream to strive for, but is it all in vein?

Throughout the film the audience is teased with things about Boy’s past that we never fully learn. How did he end up in the world of cockfighting? Why does he take on the Holy Week penance, getting whipped through the streets of his town? There are sins in Boy’s past that the audience will never know, but that is part of the intrigue of the character.

The engrossing nature of Boy’s journey shows great potential for both our directer and lead actor. Similarly, the supporting cast, from Boy’s family, friends and co-workers all do a decent job at keeping things believable. The film, at times has a voyeuristic aspect to the rawness of life. This wouldn’t be possible without the real shooting locals and local actors. Director Kristopher King shows a familiarity to the material and has no problem making this world believable to an audience.

The film, while not always an easy watch, both for the treatment and cruelty of animals and humans, is a strong one. It forces the audience to make comparisons between the chickens trapped in a cage, fighting for survival and our own characters trapped in their own cages. Are the two groups really so different? Will a life following religion guide us into understanding this cycle any better? Director HF Yambao urges us to watch and ask ourselves these questions and I urge readers of this review to do the same.

I hope this film is able to gain some traction on the festival circuit and allow director Yamboa to continue his work, I know I’ll be interested in seeing what he brings us next.

This one scores 3.8 out of 5 smashes.

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Text:
James Mallion
james@smashingmag.net

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