Increasingly in the digital age, we're used to low-grade horror films in our festivals and even our multiplexes, but the low-grade action-thriller has more typically been resigned to home video and cable boob-and-ammo fests. With little more than a digital camera and a few plane tickets to the Philippines, writer-directors Ian Gamazon and Neill Dela Llana have made a fresh bid for indie-thriller cred ("Truly Indie," as the film's distribution banner proclaims). Though the effort is admirable, watching Gamazon and Dela Llana charge through their limitations is a bit like watching a sprinter run in clogs.
Gamazon plays Adam, a lapsed Muslim and a Filipino-American. Off to his father's funeral in the Philippines, he learns his girlfriend's dead-set on aborting their unborn child rather than raising a Muslim (a distasteful plot thread that's hard to swallow). A bad week gets even worse when the decidedly Westernized Adam arrives home and is coerced—by a Muslim terrorist holding his mother and sister—into a series of tasks. In the process of following Adam around Cavite, the home of Filipino independence, Gamazon and Dela Llana literally and figuratively examine the Filipino culture.
Racked with conflict from Muslims displaced by a population now predominantly Christian, Cavite provides the setting for Adam to choose sides in the culture war. The unseen terrorist relentlessly needles Adam by cell phone, goading him with homophobic taunts and forcing him to face his Filipino shadow. Of child prostitution, the terrorist says, "There is nothing you can do. This is the reality of the Philippines." In another scene, the sinister caller gets his jollies by forcing Adam to eat a balut (the delicacy otherwise known as unfertilized egg).
The filmmakers sustain some interest by engaging Adam and his tormentor in a debate over terrorism ("It's easy to forget," says the terrorist, "that America was born from revolution"). Citing massacres against Muslims, the terrorist tries to guilt Adam into the so-called jihad and, failing that, extort him to make a horrible choice: commit a retaliatory strike for the terrorists or condemn his family to death. Gamazon and Dela Llana also none-too-subtly indict American imperialism; during an off-screen task by Adam, the camera stays with a hungry kid the terrorists paid off in McDonald's food.
A tour of territory mostly untrodden on film, Cavite matches its rhetoric with local color. But ultimately, Cavite is a thriller, composed of fairly limp thrills. It's also predicated on a highly unlikely premise: why in God's name would a terrorist organization go to so much time, trouble, and expense to mess with this guy's head when they could simply send one of their own to perform the simple mission? The filmmakers provide a dubious excuse, involving revenge—those who choose to accept it can claim this crackpot mission possible.