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by Jay Seaver

"You can't just dabble in the drug business, no matter where you are."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2014 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Does any good ever come from finding something with obviously criminal origins? There's generally only one way for trying to profit by it to go right but many to go wrong, and a lot of people motivated for the later to happen. Makes for good movies, though, and this entry from the Philippines is a pretty decent example.

It starts out with Andres (Joel Torre), a fisherman in Zambales with a wife, two kids, and a steady business underwritten by his friend Jose (Arthur Acuna). Things aren't perfect - mostly because he and his kids have different ideas about their future - but they're fairly good, all things considered. But when his boat crosses paths with a couple hundred kilos of meth that went overboard in a bust, well, that's a new opportunity, even if it does mean teaming up with Jose, a corrupt cop (Bernard Palanca), and other unsavory types to actually move it.

I wonder how derivative this would feel if I had been watching Breaking Bad the past few years, rather than figuring that a drama about Malcolm's dad dealing drugs was a silly idea at the start. The broad outlines of a relatively ordinary-seeming man entering the drug business and having it bring out his own heart of darkness seem to be about the same, and writer/director Alfonso Torre III makes it fairly clear early on, despite a few scenes that hint at Andres's wife Dindin (Bing Pimentel) having Lady MacBeth potential, that there's already a monster inside the fisherman. It takes a while for it to fully engage on the "business" side, but his demands for respect and obedience from his family are chilling enough to set up an obvious question: Does being in the drug business horrify him to the point of accepting his daughter's decisions or does it smother his better qualities?

Either way, Joel Torre certainly hints at the early potential well, making Andres affable, initially seeming like a fuddy-duddy sitcom dad when faced with the prospect of his daughter marrying without his permission, although that impression quickly falls away. I think he may be a little too understated later on - there's some steel, but maybe not as much as you'd hope, when needed - but he is good when he's given a chance to cut loose. He's helped a lot by a supporting cast that gives him a fine boost - Bing Pimintel plays up Dindin's practicality enough early on to suggest she might be the real villain, and her strong will and emotion make her a very good match for her on-screen husband. Arthur Acuna goes from laid-back to paranoid as Andres's best friend, creating good chemistry whether palling around or feuding, and Bernard Palanca gives his corrupt cop heft enough in the background that he fits right in as he becomes a major player.

The script is kind of predictable, but the production looks pretty nice, by and large. The movie takes place in the sort of rural area that by dint of giving the characters space doesn't necessarily seem poor, although it has its danger and there's plenty of room for wanting more. Cinematographer J.A. Tadena shoots the film with a fairly gray palette, and Torre III has it move along at a decent pace. The shine does wear off a bit by the end, though, as the generally conventional choices maybe aren't quite as exciting as a crazy one or two, even if that one stumbles. The full-circle ending could have a little more punch.

It gets its point across, though, and 'Kabisera" is satisfying enough when all is said and done. It probably plays a little better locally, and better still without something else that had years to build its scale and fame casting a shadow on it, but it's still a decent take.

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originally posted: 08/03/14 00:33:10
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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