Filipino film grand dame Nora Aunor stars as an amoral human trafficker getting ahead in a world of corruption and crime.
Justice revolves around an individual being swept along a life trajectory she can barely understand or control. It's a line which aptly describes the film itself, but in a negative sense. Despite delivering a valiant, restrained performance as an amoral crook, Philippine cinema grand-dame (and reborn indie-cinema icon) Nora Aunor is left flailing in the middle of a visually uninspiring, shoddily scripted affair.
In his second collaboration with the actress this year - the first one being a tearjerking TV soap opera about a loving wife struggling to nurse her cancer-stricken husband - director Joel C. Lamangan flounders in his attempt to fuse melodrama with the gritty, fatalist realism which has propelled many a socially-conscious Filipino filmmaker, from Lino Brocka to Brillante Mendoza, into the international limelight.
Indeed, Justice obviously is sculpted with Brocka's Manila in the Claws of Light in mind - Lamargan's depiction of the creepy, crass and corrupted underbelly of the Philippines' capital offers an updated nod to that seminal 1975 filth-and-fury social drama which has just been given a second life after digital restoration and a sustained festival run starting at Cannes. Lamangan's film, however, pales in its contrived, over-ambitious narrative driven by a simplistic portrayal of the criminal goings-on in a broken social system.
Its limited run on the circuit after its bow at home at the Cinemalaya festival perhaps speaks volumes about its traction, as the more high-profile international premiere in Toronto is followed by a handful of appearances in Warsaw, Hanoi and the Festival des Continents in Nantes. A win for Aunor at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards next week could probably provide the film with a push for more bookings elsewhere - but maybe only just.
In sharp contrast to her last big-screen role - in Mendoza's Thy Womb, as a long-suffering villager struggling to find a woman to bear a child for her husband - Aunor graces Justice as a hard-boiled, foul-mouthed cynic. The film's first 15 minutes is Aunor's masterclass of nuanced acting: helped no less by a haircut (short), clothes (ordinary) and props (a folding umbrella), the actress plays out all the small gestures and vocal inflections of the selfish, small-minded harridan Biring, as she meets, greets and fends off the politicians, pimps and pastors feeding off the human-trafficking business she is looking after for her childhood-friend-turned -boss Vivian (Rosanna Roces).
Soon after her daughter Lorena (Sunshine Dizon) warned her that "those who pretend to be blind will become blind", she's thrown to the wolves by Vivian as she's framed for a deadly crime and seemingly getting the comeuppance for her willful ignorance of injustice. Somehow, those higher up the ranks have other ideas, as the powers that be - represented by a sleek-suited young lawyer called Gerald (Rocco Nacino) - go out of the way to harden her heart, set her free and then groom her for bigger things.
But a question lingers: why Biring, of all people? The efforts to train her in prison and pave the way for her ascendancy are not plausible, as the story gradually spirals into unconvincing, simplistic mush about the making of a criminal queen-bee. In fact, Lamangan probably should have tackled this as an underworld-set small-screen series for everything to click: the betrayal, the the prison-cell persecution and payback, the trial and acquittal, the ditching of any final shreds of conscience as a stellar future awaits - all unfolding on screen with the cliched trappings of cross-fading flashbacks, schmaltzy music and the like. All this does Aunor's bravura turn an injustice, as she struggles to make her grit count in the smooth, television-friendly proceedings on display here.