Film review: Big Night (2021) by Jun Robles Lana

Duterte’s war on drugs is the Philippines 21st century witch hunt on individuals who might or might not be related to drug distribution and consumption, which doesn’t really matter the moment someone is labelled a dealer or addict. A slightest suspicion of either can make a person a living target, as literally anyone can claim their lives. 

Big Night” is screening at SDAFF Spring Showcase

In the opening credits to his dramedy “Big Night” Jun Robles Lana addresses the so called ‘watchlist’, or the initiative started by the Philippine government in 2016, encouraging village officials to help gathering the names of drug suspects in every neighbourhood across the country. What this initiative actually means is that the lives of individuals are put in the hands of blood-thirsty mobs, or of people who aren’t shy of killing when such actions stop being punishable by a law which sees them as justified. Human rights organizations can’t do anything about it except report about the number of victims, which Lana also doesn’t forget to mention in the form of a fraction of radio news about the topic, served right at the beginning of the film. 

It is to such sobering words of a radio moderator we got to meet the main hero of the film – the chatty, small beauty parlor owner Dharna (Christian Bables). It is no coincidence that we first see him while he is paying honor to a family member at the graveyard. Only minutes later, he would be witnessing the cold-blooded murder of his former customer and lover Ronron, before being informed that his own name also appeared on the watchlist. He is alarmed about the meaning of it, and before the word about it spreads around and the list gets published, Dharna needs to find the way to get his name removed from it. His anguished chase for the solution starts, and we follow his every desperate step to erase his name from the execution list during one single day. The film is set during one day, but owes its title equally to a side plot: a long awaited performance of Dharna’s boyfriend in one of the city’s gay bars. 

We are set in motion to the nervous pacing of Dharna’s feet. The camera carries us across diverse parts of Manila, and further into the hidden corners of its urban belly. Our hero is green between the ears, so the multi-award winning DoP Carlo Canlas Mendoza (and Lana’s regular collaborator) paints his world yellow, underlining the young man’s naive belief in justice, and at the same time – the insanity of the whole situation. The tempo is nicely paced, nowhere near the frenzy, but too restless to let you relax. In other words, no matter how much you are into this kind of a nonchalant approach to a serious topic or not, the film will demand your concentration.

It is an unknown world for the young man who is dragged into it through a sick plan the actual drug mafia had plotted to frame the innocent. When Dharna sees the true face of the local political structure, the one truly filled with corruption, greed and lack of empathy, he tries to figure out where to look for answers and the needed help. 

“Big Night” is a crisp comedy about the deep abyss between the average citizen and people on power, and it shows the parallel worlds they inhabit. It is a sobering film about the corruption and incomprehensibly brutal laws that apply only to those who don’t have a say in the political game. In his script, Jun Robles Lanaapproaches the paradox of Duterte’s War on Drugs with ironic undertones, in a language new to the audiences acquainted with his body of work. Two years ago, his dark drama Kalel 15 gained critical acclaim for the raw portrayal of the life of an HIV positive boy, left alone to deal with it. The film brought the Filipino director the Best Director Award at PÖFF, at the festival during which two weeks ago “Big Night” world-premiered in the main competition. 

This is a film with a shaky balance between comedy and drama, and whose strongest card is its cast. Eugene Domingo plays the greedy ‘Madam’, a woman of all trades who has built a significant business empire due to her political connections, and the fantastic John Arcilla as a former movie star turned mafia boss.