"Graceland" Delves into Dark Subject Matter

Photo Credit: Drafthouse Films
September 19th, 2012

"Graceland" Delves into Dark Subject Matter

-- One of the most powerful films to appear at the Tribeca film festival this year was Ron Morales' "Graceland." The film is hardly for the faint of heart. Focusing on the child sex trafficking trade, "Graceland" tells the story of murder, kidnapping, and moral compromises that never seem to end.

Arnold Reyes stars in the film as Marlon Villar, the right-hand man to a powerful and corrupt Filipino politician, Manuel Chango (Menggie Cobarrubias). With an infinite amount of family and financial problems, Reyes feels he has no choice but to submit to his boss's will, even when that means paying off teenage prostitutes after Chango is done with them. As difficult as his life is, Villar's troubles mount when his daughter is mistaken for the daughter of his boss and kidnapped. Villar quickly finds himself hemmed in from every side when he receives exorbitant ransom demands from the kidnappers and ruthless bullying from the detective in charge of the case, Ramos (Dido De La Paz). For his part, Ramos cannot help but believe Villar is in on the entire thing. The twists in the film continue to mount and become increasingly complicated as each character finds himself compromising any ethics he may ever have had in a desperate attempt to escape untouched. Ultimately, no one in this film remains innocent.

Both complex and disturbing, "Graceland" is the type of film that will remain with you long after you have tossed your soda cup and popcorn in the trash and returned to the comfort of your own home. Filmmaker Ron Morales has stated he was inspired to make the film in light of the big business both prostitution and kidnapping present in Manila. Red light districts abound in the city, while kidnapping has become a phenomenon that transcends social classes. Originally, Morales intended to write a script that focused solely on Filipino sex workers. As he began to research the women who carry out the sex trade in the Philippines, it became apparent that more had to be done to bring attention to the matter. That turned out to be "Graceland." Ultimately, Morales lost funding for that version of the film, and he began working on ways to incorporate part of the sex workers' stories into a new script that would become "Graceland."

The film offers moviegoers a host of skillful performances, particularly those delivered by Arnold Reyes, the actor portraying the role of Marlon Villar. In an effort to land the best and most authentic actors possible for the roles in the film, Morales and his film crew held auditions in some fairly obscure locations. In the end, the crew had a mere 3 weeks to cast the entire film before going into production. Despite the short time frame, the final onscreen result reveals the care given to casting the right individuals into the proper roles.

One element that filmgoers may immediately notice about "Graceland" is that it is exceptionally atmospheric. Many of the urban locations are remarkable; the entire city of Manila almost develops its own sense of character. This element seems to further underscore the impact of the film. While Morales has admitted that Manila is "a nightmare" when it comes to shooting due lack of crowd control, the final effect is gritty and authentic.

Morales also made no effort to sanitize the reality of life in Manila. This is widely accomplished in "Graceland" through the use of real settings and businesses. One of the most powerful scenes in the film occurs in a brothel. The scene was shot in an actual working brothel on the outskirts of Manila. The mood the audience may feel while viewing the film is precisely the same mood experienced while filming that scene, according to Morales.

"Graceland" is difficult to watch at times. Many scenes are likely to make you uncomfortable; some may have you wondering if you should look away and make you question whether you might find yourself making the same choices in the same situation. In the end, that is the entire point of the film. As dark as the subject matter of this film may be, it is a reality for many people throughout the world. Can we continue to look away and pretend it does not exist?

For Morales, at least, the answer was simple. No.

Since its worldwide premiere in April, "Graceland" has received no small amount of attention. Whether or not the film will earn an Oscar nomination, as many suspect, remains to be seen.

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