Rap in the Age of ‘Tokhang’
Spoiler alert. During the filming of the suspenseful, pivotal concluding scene in the movie “Respeto,” a true-to-life “tokhang” was taking place. A term that literally means “to knock,” because police and authorities knock on (or kick down) the doors of houses of suspected drug pushers or users, “tokhang” has become the most dreaded word in the lexicon created by President Duterte’s blood-soaked war on drugs.
The filmmakers were understandably spooked when, in the course of filming the scene in the Manila district of Pandacan, people began talking of a “tokhang” operation taking place nearby. Police were pursuing a suspected pusher who fled his house and would have been gunned down had he not embraced and hidden behind an elderly woman. “So he wasn’t shot and was arrested instead,” said someone who was there. There is no word, though, on what happened to the police prey afterwards.
This is the backstory to “Respeto,” which, on the surface, is about the underworld local rap scene, replete with “battles” where amateurs compete for “pot” money while trading impromptu verses filled with cuss words, insults, and references to anatomy that often lead to violent dustups.
But the “real world” constantly intrudes into the movie’s fictional one, with the harsh and rough realities of poverty and the drug trade underpinning the young rapper-hero’s struggle to gain the respect of competitors, neighbors and friends.
Chief among them is “Doc,” an elderly bookstore owner and poet with whom rapper Hendrix develops an unlikely friendship. But when their lives intersect, their worlds collide and their fates are sealed.
Director Treb Monteras II (who cowrote the movie with Njel de Mesa), actually began working on the movie three or four years ago, I am told, but “in the last year or so, everything changed.” The “change” corresponds, of course, with the start of the Duterte administration and the launch of the war on drugs that has thrown the lives of Filipinos, but especially the poor, into a tizzy.
I imagine the film started out as a simple, linear story about a rapper’s journey to fame and riches, until the realities of life in the mean streets set it plunging into the depths of our social malaise.
Starring as and embodying Hendrix is a genuine rap superstar in these parts. Known as Abra, born Raymond Abracosa, he is in his late 20s but looks as young, if not younger, than the 18-year-old semi-orphan (his sister and her boyfriend are the sole adults supervising him) he plays.
The movie is actually a showcase of the little-known (at least to old fogeys) elite of Pinoy rap. Playing “Breezy G,” Hendrix’s biggest nemesis, is Loonie who is, I am told, the other “biggie” in the current rap scene, after Francis M left the scene and other biggies like Gloc 9 and Ron Henley conceded the spotlight to younger, hungrier rappers.
Other entries in Cinemalaya, which started the ball rolling in the current whirlwind of independent film festivals, are worth a look-see. They are: “Ang Guro Kong ’Di Marunong Magbasa (My Teacher Who Doesn’t Know How to Read),” “Ang Pamilyang Hindi Lumuluha (The Family that Doesn’t Weep)” starring Sharon Cuneta, “Baconaua,” “Bagahe (The Baggage)”, “Nabubulok (The Decaying),” “Kiko Boksingero,” “Requited” starring Jake Cuenca, and “Sa Gabing Nanahimik ang mga Kuliglig (At Night when the Cicadas were Quiet).” A “Golden Age” of Filipino films, which saw the heyday of filmmakers like Lino Brocka, Ishmael Bernal, Mike de Leon and Mario O’Hara actually emerged deep in the darkness of martial law. At a time when free speech was curtailed and an injudicious remark could lead one to be picked up by police or savagely salvaged, these filmmakers and their courageous producers dared make movies that tore the blinders off the eyes of filmgoers.
I have the feeling we are seeing the advent of another Golden Age, with movies that purport to be about rap, countryside education, fisherfolk, and even the shooting of an endangered bird plumbing the depths of Filipino society, and the problems that are emerging. Exciting times!
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