ML is a Violent, Searing Depiction of the Real-Life Horrors of the Past

ML was described to be the scariest and most shocking movie of the year.
IMAGE Facebook - ML Film (@MLfilm2018)

Cinemalaya favorite ML officially hit cinemas yesterday. “The scariest and most shocking movie of the year” is emblazoned across the movie poster; to the left, Eddie Garcia glares at us, doused in blood-red lighting.

Eddie Garcia’s glare alone is enough evidence. The veteran actor bagged his third Best Actor award for his portrayal of a retired METROCOM Colonel who believes he’s still under the auspices of Martial Law. While the volatile, senile character has become a staple of many suspense thrillers and horror movies alike, the stillness of Garcia’s persona—the way his presence makes the air around him tense up—keeps you on the edge of your seat. The way he narrows his eyes ever so slightly lets you know that something bad, something real bad, is going to happen. Garcia does more with an inch of movement than any amount of dissonant guitar chords can strum to make us tense.

Tony Labrusca stars as Carlo, the student who lands squarely into the Colonel’s lap. What started off as an assignment to research about Martial Law goes incredibly wrong when Carlo interviews the Colonel but ends up getting kidnapped by the retired soldier and tortured in his basement.

ML is anything but subtle when it comes to torture. Carlo’s toenails are pulled off within the first twenty or so minutes of the film, the camera panning back and forth between the Colonel’s smirk and Carlo’s bloodied foot.

ML is anything but subtle about its depiction of torture. IMAGE: Facebook - ML Film (@MLfilm2018)

Labrusca’s performance, most of which is spent tied to a chair with his mouth duct-taped, is a testament to just how demanding acting can be. With every muffled yelp and wriggling attempt to free himself, Labrusca shows us that acting isn’t just about lines. His performance doesn’t make you forget that he’s an actor. Instead, the physical and emotional duress that comes with acting is laid bare on the screen. His performance works because it’s clear just how much he’s worked.

Performances aside, ML is a movie that’s hard to be critical about, what with the continuing fight to ensure that this period of Philippine history remains in our collective consciousness. It’s a necessary discussion point, and the medium of film gives the best approximation of what phrases like “violence during Martial Law” and “unlawful torture” look like.

ML, however, isn’t really a movie for the millennials who take to the streets every September 21. It’s for people like Carlo, who argue that Martial Law was actually a good thing and say that hey, at least it was just Marcos who stole stuff during his presidency. It’s for people like the Colonel’s son-in-law (played by Rafael Siguion-Reyna, the grand-newphew of EDSA personality Juan Ponce Enrile), who justify extrajudicial killings and illegal detention because hey, those guys had it coming. For everyone else, though, it’s a movie that hammers home more of the same message.


It’s difficult to call the movie too shocking or too violent since such labels degrade the experiences of those who actually went through what Carlo and his friends went through. Still, ML is a movie that’s made to make you sick. The film constantly asks if you’ve had enough yet, pushing you past your breaking point as a viewer.

One could argue that ML relies a bit too heavily on its shock value. When it comes to the scenes that have nothing to do with the Colonel torturing Carlo and his friends, the plot tends to fall victim to the pressure of staying relevant. The final sequence, where Carlo attempts to stab the Colonel, who has already died in his sleep, is all set-up to reveal an irony that many of us find glaringly obvious: that soldiers like the Colonel are buried in the Libingan ng mga Bayani.

The film cuts just as Carlo is meant to report on his assignment, a move that assumes that we know what he’s about to say, a story of naysayer-turned-prophet. The problem is, however, that no one seems to believe Carlo, since the Colonel covered up his tracks and cleaned up his basement.

What’s Carlo about to say? We’re not really sure. The aftershocks of trauma could have been worth exploring a little bit further, perhaps in lieu of some of the torture scenes.

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ML gives the best approximation of what phrases like “violence during Martial Law” and “unlawful torture” look like. IMAGE: Facebook - ML Film (@MLfilm2018)

“You should test him for drugs,” a police officer says to Carlo’s parents, which is followed by a brief montage of nightmares where Carlo is followed by the Colonel. The film raises a couple of interesting questions—how do you convince someone of an event that seems to have never occurred? How, and why, do we continue to venerate people like the Colonel?—and leaving them unanswered is unfair.

There are also some small details that slipped under the postproduction radar. It’s a wonder how Carlo and Pat (Carlo’s girlfriend, played by Lianne Valentin) managed to escape through the Colonel’s porch with the soldier taking a call just a few meters away, the same man who can hear a phone ringing from below the basement. There’s a text exchange between Pat and “Carlo” (aka the Colonel trying to lure her in), but a zoom-in on Pat’s phone shows that she hasn’t sent the text that is supposedly on Carlo’s phone.

But again, these are minor details that you might just overlook when watching the film. Some thrillers rely solely on the smallest of details: a shadow that’s there and gone, a boot moved an inch to the right, a slight billowing of the curtain. ML is the extreme opposite, a movie that hits hard on the back of your neck with a hammer.

ML will tire you out. It foregoes critical thinking and analysis for an up close and personal view of the bloody, violent realities that occurred every day under Martial Law, and probably still occur today. The film hints at ways to think about this issue critically and ways to probe a little deeper under the surface, but ultimately foregoes these tactics for something that will get the most people listening.

Eddie Garcia and Tony Labrusca’s performance are what make ML worth watching, if you can stomach it. Move over, Hannibal Lecter—the Colonel is going to haunt many a dream from here on out.

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Gaby Flores
Gaby Flores is a contributing writer for Esquire. She likes postcolonial literature and spicy food.
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