Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 23 January 2020

Review: Anne Curtis-starring horror 'Aurora' flounders on the rocks

Skillful film making is let down by a flyweight script in Filipino shipwreck yarn

Anne Curtis and Phoebe Villamor in 'Aurora'. Courtesy ABS-CBN.
Anne Curtis and Phoebe Villamor in 'Aurora'. Courtesy ABS-CBN.


Dir: Yam Laranas

Starring: Anne Curtis, Phoebe Villamor, Allan Paule

Two stars

Anne Curtis has had a daunting few months. The last time we saw the Filipina star on screen, she was being tormented by legions of armed criminals while trapped in a Manila slum in Erik Matti’s The Raid-like Buy Bust. This weekend, she’s being tormented by legions of the dead in Yam Laranas’ brooding horror Aurora, which picked up five awards, including a second place in Best Picture, at last week’s Metro Manila Film Festival.

The Aurora of the title refers to a passenger ship that has run into rocks off the coast of the desolate Philippine island of Batanes. This particular Philippine island isn’t the tropical paradise of the tourist brochures. It’s a barren, rocky outcrop that wouldn’t look out of place off the coast of Scotland, and judging by the constant torrential rain, crashing waves and grey skies it has a similar climate too.

With an unsightly shipwreck, believed to still contain hundreds of unregistered dead bodies, for its main vista, business at Leana’s (Curtis) seafront hotel, which was used as the base for rescue operations, has been a little slow since the wreck, and she’s preparing to pack up and ship out with her young sister Rita (Villamor) to try and earn an income in a less grisly setting. Then the families of the missing passengers beg her to stay a while longer and continue to search for their missing relatives, offering a healthy reward for every dead body she recovers.

Leana agrees, largely as a business opportunity, and enlists the help of local fisherman Eddie (Paule) to help. It turns out they won’t have to try too hard to find the bodies. As the passengers trapped on the flooded ship peered out of the windows, they could make out the twinkling lights of the hotel in the distance, and they knew it was their only chance of salvation. It turns out they’ve come to the same conclusion in death too, and pretty soon they’re coming to Leana, not the other way round.

The movie is stylistically a success. There’s some impressive camerawork delivering a bleak, dreary tone and a suitably eerie atmosphere and there are some decent jump-scare moments. What lets the film down, however, is the script. Now, we all expect some suspension of disbelief in the horror genre. Murderous clowns don’t generally live in the sewers, and knife fingered maniacs rarely actually kill us in our dreams. But we also expect the world we’re watching to be built convincingly enough for this to be believable in context.

Here, we have armies of the dead walking ashore from a wrecked ship, and no one from the coast guard to the families of the dead even seems surprised or wonders how. Then there’s the scenes where certain doors in Leana’s house start opening up into the hold of the sinking ship rather than the lounge. Again, with a token genre explanation – “she’s dreaming” or “the evil demon is controlling her mind” or “it’s a wormhole” – we’d be fine with this, but no. It just happens.

Even when the script seems to be heading down an interesting avenue, it pulls out at the last minute, such as when Eddie concludes that looting the ship’s cargo is a far more profitable venture than looking for dead bodies. Leana, who has only ever been doing this for financial motives, suddenly becomes the moral arbiter – it’s fine to make money from bloated corpses, but not looted cans of noodles, she concludes, and takes on a new assistant, while also keeping Eddie on. I’m not quite sure what the moral lesson is there, but it’s certainly not one arising from the fascinating debate that could have come from further investigating the implications of Leana’s rather gruesome start up.

Nonetheless, it’s refreshing to see Pinoy cinema branching out from its staple diet of romantic dramas with films like this and last year’s actioner Buy Bust, but both films probably serve to demonstrate that the industry as a whole may just need a little bit of practice at making films in these genres that we wouldn’t typically associate with Philippine cinema. I hope it gets it. Laranas displays some great technical work, and there’s the germ of a good idea here struggling to get out. And they say practice makes perfect.

Updated: January 3, 2019 01:49 AM