The Aswang’s Narrative of Anti-Insurgency

31 Oct 2009 (Sat) at 7:05 pm 1 comment

Guada: the aswang as detainee.

Guada: the aswang as detainee.

Patient X
Director: Yam Laranas
Cast: Richard Gutierrez, Cristine Reyes

They hide in the jungles. They massacre innocent people. May mga kasama siya. Gusto kong malaman kung sa’n sila nagtatago. At kung paano sila mapatay. Kahit ano’ng gawin ko, hindi ko siya mapatay. Sabihin mo sa’kin kung paano sila mapapatay. Hindi tama na ikulong lang sila. They must be annihilated. They are evil. Hindi sila tao. Sino ka ba? Ano kayo?

If it weren’t for the raucous growls and decaying teeth of the Gollum-like monsters, one would swear that they were talking about rebels. This, however, was not one of the military’s anti-communist forums, nor a press conference by the Bantay or ANAD partylists. This was Patient X, the latest horror film by Yam Laranas, and the heartless creatures were not guerrillas but aswangs.

The use of aswangs as a veil for state counter-insurgency strategies is not new. The notion of the aswang and other supernatural beings were mobilized by Spanish colonizers to discredit oppositional forces like babaylans and tulisanes, as well as to create a climate of fear to limit civilian movement after dark—nighttime, after all, is the best time to clandestinely assemble and plan tactics of rebellion. This tactic was so successful that it has been repeatedly used throughout history. Cesar Hernando’s 2006 short film Kagat ng Dilim, for example, starring Piolo Pascual, tackles how this tactic was used against the anti-Japanese Hukbalahap rebellion of the 1950s.

Patient X does not exactly scream for such a political interpretation, but its elements beg for a second look. The film is about Lukas (Richard Gutierrez), a Manila-based doctor who, upon notification by a military agent, rushes back to his provincial hometown. As a child, Lukas bore witness to his family’s massacre, and it is only now, years later, that the culprit was caught. We learn that the suspect is incarcerated in the basement of an old hospital under the name Patient X. She is Guada (Cristine Reyes), an aswang. Over the course of a night, Lukas, the hospital’s skeleton staff and the provincial police/military battle it out with the rest of the bloodthirsty aswangs who try to break into the hospital to retrieve Guada.

The most obvious element, of course, is the prominence of the historically politicized entity we call the aswang. Then we have the decrepit hospital which looks equally dilapidated, with or without electricity, suggesting a dearth of basic social services in the far-flung town. The police chief Alfred Molina (TJ Trinidad) commands an unambiguous conflation of police, military and private security forces, blatantly mirroring the circumstances of the repressive state apparatuses which operate in authoritarian unison in the countryside. The film’s milieu, then, is a combination of poverty, authoritarianism, and superstition—a very plausible setting for a fantastic approach to counter-insurgency operations.

Politics—or at least, political imagery—contributed to the conceptualizing of the film. Laranas admits in his blog that the Abu Ghraib photos were among his visual references. This is clearly reflected in a sequence when Molina, in a fit of anger, repeatedly tortures Guada, using, among other gory techniques, a style of electrocution which became iconic of the Abu Ghraib tortures. The film reproduces the image faithfully, down to the ragged cloak and the black bag over the detainee’s head.

Patient X: The Abu Ghraib connection

(Clockwise from top left) Patient X; an angry Chief Molina sets Patient X aflame; the iconic inmate of Abu Ghraib prison; front cover of 'The Economist,' 08 May 2004.

Patient X: The bed

An Abu Ghraib inmate (left) in a stress position on an empty double-deck bedrame, humiliated by being forced to wear panties on his head; Guada (right) chained to a metal bedframe.

That Patient X depicts a clearly American torture method and situates it within the operations of the Philippine National Police/Armed Forces of the Philippines has a very clear implication: that the United States government is training and assisting the AFP/PNP in its counter-insurgency measures. The history of the Philippines is, in fact, a testament to American participation in local political decisions—of course, not out of sheer benevolence, but because the US stands to benefit from it. The installation of US-backed presidents; the presence of US military outposts in the country as assets to its wars of aggression in the Middle East and Asia; the enactment of unfair agreements such as the Visiting Forces Agreement, the Mutual Logistics Support Agreement and the Mutual Defense Treaty; the controversial Balikatan exercises—the list goes on an on, and provides context as to why there is a need to use tactics (both cultural and military) to suppress local oppositional movements that aim to end to such barefaced imperialism.

“We have realized that winning the battle is not through an armed struggle,” said a commanding general of the AFP Central Command, “but winning the hearts and minds of people.” It is interesting, then, that in Patient X, aswangs are literally (and viciously) after the hearts of the people, and Molina’s men are trying to thwart them. It is a crude and gory manifestation, but a manifestation nonetheless.

Patient X: The aswangs

The aswangs: Marcus (left) and Samuel (right).

In one scene, two male aswangs pretend to be wounded civilians in order to gain entry to the hospital. Lukas spots that inhuman gleam in their eye, and screams “Andito na silaaaaaa!” thus prompting the policemen to shut and barricade the hospital’s entrance.

This gesture of “notification” and, to some extent, paranoia, is reminiscent of the AFP’s presentation “Knowing the Enemy,” leaked in 2005, which accused various legal organizations of being “communist fronts” pretending to be civilian groups. This document merely confirmed the escalating trend of extrajudicial killings in the country, which targeted heads of militant groups like partylist Bayan Muna and workers’ group Kilusang Mayo Uno. Similarly, in Patient X, the only way to kill an aswang is to slit its throat, or chop off its head. Again, on the level of metaphor, the counter-aswang tactic reflects the government’s counter-insurgency tactic (the “Palparan solution”) of targeting heads/leaders.

“Hindi tama na ikulong lang sila,” says Chief Molina, commanding his men to search out every aswang in the community and kill them. This minimum tolerance policy on aswangs reflects the all-out war strategy employed by both the Joseph Estrada and Gloria Arroyo administrations against insurgent groups. “Gruesome, animalistic, barbaric are not even enough to describe what you have seen,” said then AFP Chief of Staff Hermogenes Esperon in an anti-communist documentary. “That is why your AFP and the officials of this land, national and local, are even more determined now to end this cruelty and oppression of the New People’s Army.” Clearly, the government, in its bid to gain ground in the war against the Reds, paints rebels as monsters, in the same way that the head nurse Betty (Miriam Quiambao) warns Lukas about the inhumanity of Guada and other aswangs: Hindi ‘yan tao!

Laranas encodes the countryside as a space of state/military authoritarianism, where agents can track you down to your exact city address and show up at your doorstep without prior notification, or where, fueled by personal revenge, the police chief can order the transfer a town’s worth of sick patients and convert the hospital into a detention center. There, right under the vital structures of ordinary life, lies a dungeon, a shadowy underground where people can be seized and tortured while aboveground, people are healed, oblivious to the fact that there are prisoners, there are secrets, there is darkness—and a vast, complex realm of fantasy disguising concrete horrors.#

– – – – –


“Tulad ng pasyenteng sinasalinan ng malabnaw at banyagang dugo…”

Patient X: "Sino ka ba? Ano kayo?"

Lukas interrogates Guada: "Sino ka ba? Ano kayo?"

ni Mike L. Bigornia

Isa ako sa nabubuhay sa lalawigan ng kababalaghan.
Lakbaying halos laging naglulundo
sa pamahiin at lagim.
Dukha lamang kami,
ngunit kailanma’y di pinapanawan
ng pag-asa at pangarap.
Dukha kami, kaya’t isang mahabang tagtuyot,
dumating ang Bagong Pulisya,
at ibinintang sa maligno ang aming karalitaan.
Nagpakilala silang tunay na tagapangalaga
ng bagong katwiran, at sa maikling panahon,
tinugis nila ang tikbalang,
binitay ang tiyanak,
dinistiyero ang dragon,
at kinaladkad ang misteryo ng buwan.
Sinunog nila ang lahat
ng diumanong sungot ng pagtakas
at pagkaraa’y nagputong sa mga sarili
bilang sultan ng tanging katotohanan.
Ngayon, anila’y, malinis na kami
sa anumang engkanto ng diwa at katauhan.

Nabubuhay kami,
ngunit para sa amin,
nabubuhay tulad ng pasyenteng sinasalinan
ng malabnaw at banyagang dugo,
sa batas ng iisa at mapagpataw na liwanag.

Dukha pa rin kami,
ngunit walang mas hihigit na dukha
kaysa maralitang salamisim.

Nasakop kami,
ngunit nakaligtaan nilang di kailanman
kami papanawan ng pag-asa at pangarap.
Kaya tuwing gabi,
tulad ng sinaunang musmos,
kami’y lumilikha ng mga bagong pangitain
upang muling buhayin ang aming pinaslang
na kaluluwa’t budhi.


Though more of a praise release and marketing video explaining the hows (rather than the whys), you might be interested in watching the making of Patient X here.

Aswang and the Language of Anti-insurgency


Entry filed under: Edgar Allan Paule, Filipino films, Full length films. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , .

Memories of Underdevelopment Not Another Yellow Solidarity of the Bourgeoisie

1 Comment Add your own

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