Philippine director Alberto “Treb” Monteras’ politically charged hip-hop/poetry mashup received its U.S. premiere at the New York Asian Film Festival after a yearlong festival tour.
Charting a young rapper’s rite of passage under the aegis of an old poet with a traumatic past, Respeto offers a gripping if sometimes slightly melodramatic look at the chaotic clash of values shaping the Philippines today. While featuring some of the country’s most prominent hip-hop artists, Alberto “Treb” Monteras’ movie goes much further by probing the role of the musical form, and art in general, at a time when the elite — from the political class all the way down to police officers — rule by machismo and egging on the masses.
Having previously worked in advertising and then TV and music video production, Monteras’ first foray into feature filmmaking has given Philippine cinema a breakout hit. The film won multiple awards at Cinemalaya, a premier indie showcase, and kudos aplenty during its protracted festival run across Europe (Rotterdam) and Asia (from Bucheon to Shanghai). It made its North American bow last week at the New York Asian Film Festival.
In an audacious and perhaps self-reflexive move, Respeto begins by showing Philippine street-wise hip-hop at its chauvinist worst: During rap battles in a sweaty nightclub, bad boys diss their rivals with rhymes drenched in narcissism, misogyny and violent imagery. Standing on the sidelines, the teenage Hendrix (Abra) is in awe of all that: Seeing himself as having “the heart of a Filipino and the mind of a gangster,” he dreams of attaining the swagger which would allow him to break away from his abusive drug-peddling sister (Thea Yrastorza) and brother-in-law (Brian Arda).
Hanging around the ‘hood with his buddies — the elfin tomboy Betchai (Chai Fonacier) and the bumbling giant Payaso (Ybes Bagadiong) — Hendrix’s haughtiness takes a knock when he loses his first rap battle, wetting his pants in the process. Desperate to find money to pay for yet another stab at the prize, he and his friends are caught breaking into a second-hand bookstore. In return for not being charged for the crime, they are required to help redecorate the rickety shop, thus pitting them against its crabby owner, Doc (Dido De La Paz).
Though initially Doc and Hendrix are at odds, Doc eventually takes the boy under his wing, enlivens his verses with his own poetry from the 1970s and finally reveals his past as a radical wordsmith and the deadly persecution meted out to him and his family. Meanwhile, the malaise of the here and now is embodied by Hendrix’s nemesis Breezy G (Loonie) and Doc’s son Fuentes (Nor Domingo), a corrupt cop who controls the dealers in the neighborhood — including Hendrix’s brother-in-law.
This leads to Respeto‘s tragic denouement, a contrived one, to be sure, but it could also be seen as Monteras’ attempt to rewire the story into the real circumstances of Philippine society, at a time when a populist president and his cronies readily encourage corrupt cops, trigger-happy paramilitaries and confused soldiers to do whatever they want in the name of God and country.
While never mentioning Rodrigo Duterte by name, Respeto is a thinly veiled critique of the way the current Philippine commander-in-chief has consolidated and even amplified the harmful legacy left behind by former dictators. Radio bulletins of Duterte’s decision to endorse a heroic reburial of the remains of the late tyrant Ferdinand Marcos blare from nearly every radio onscreen, especially during scenes at Doc’s house — a relevance made evident later when the old man recalls the horrible things he experienced at the hands of Marcos’ henchmen. And when Doc tells Hendrix how “there is no depth for a man who dies for applause,” Monteras and his co-screenwriter Njel de Mesa are surely taking a pot shot at Duterte than the bragging boys down at the rap battles.
Then again, Respeto is also critical of bling-driven rappers, too. Through Doc’s recollections of his own writing as a dissident poet in the ’70s, Monteras highlights the artist’s responsibility to engage with the problems of the world. The gangsta rap on show here is fixated on “get rich or die trying,” and it’s hardly coincidental that the club hosting the rap battles is called Versus, a convergence point where conflict is manufactured and encouraged.
Laced with social commentary and scintillating musical scenes, Respeto offers much more than its verses combined. Lawrence S. Ang’s editing and Jay Durias’ score maintain the energy of the action throughout, and the cast — especially Abra and De La Paz — deliver performances radiating fury and confusion as they confront an intolerable reality getting grimmer every day.
Production company: Arkeofilms
Cast: Abra, Dido De La Paz, Loonie, Chani Fonacier, Ybes Bagadiong
Director: Alberto “Treb” Monteras
Screenwriters: Alberto “Treb” Monteras, Njel de Mesa
Producer: Monster Jiminez
Executive producers: Thenielle Monteras, Jet Cornejo, Mae Cornejo, Alberto “Treb” Monteras
Director of photography: Ike Avellana
Production designer: Popo Diaz
Editor: Lawrence S. Ang
Music: Jay Durias